Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: anti-science (page 1 of 3)

D&C Lesson 5 (Personal Revelation)

“This Is the Spirit of Revelation”

Reading assignment

Reading assignment: Doctrine and Covenants 6; 8; 9; Joseph Smith—History 1:8–17.

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

It’s a busy year for Your Humble Godless Doctrine teacher. So I’m posting this lesson as kind of a rough outline, with the intention of filling in the details later. Think of this as the notes that a Gospel Doctrine teacher would walk into class with.

Main points for this lesson

Revelation

Ask: How is revelation supposed to work?

D&C 8:2 Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.

D&C 9:7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right,

Answer: Members are expected to work out the problem themselves, and then decide if they feel spiritual about it.

If it’s right, you feel something like dyspepsia, and if it’s wrong, you feel dumb.

D&C 9:8 and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.

From the manual:

Why does the Lord expect us to study matters out in our own minds before receiving revelation? (Answers could include that the Lord intends for us to be active, not passive, as we seek revelation from Him. He also expects us to use our agency. We grow as we use the gifts and resources He has provided to help us study matters out in our minds.)

In other words, you’re supposed to use your brain to solve the problem, but then you’re supposed to pretend that the answer came from God. That way, you do all the work, and God gets the credit. But you have an answer that you feel positive about. If it all blows up later, then you can pretend there was some sort of “greater purpose” for you getting it wrong.

This is a good time to review this video from Jeff Holland, in which he arrives at what he admits is an unambiguously wrong answer to prayer.

Ask: What was his explanation for why the Spirit told him to go in the wrong direction, on (in his words) “clearly the wrong road”?
Answer: The Lord allowed him to go the wrong way for a while, so that he would know it was wrong.

Ask: How would you ever know if this method of getting answers didn’t work?

With this rationale, there would be absolutely no way to disconfirm this method. Either it gives right answers, or it gives wrong answers that are also right! Either your faith is strengthened, or your faith is strengthened more. This method is a closed circle.

This is also blind faith. An eye that responds the same to light and darkness is a blind eye. Faith that responds the same to confirmation and disconfirmation is blind faith.

Personal revelation in my life

I actually got my testimony of the church by praying about the Doctrine and Covenants, and not the Book of Mormon. I might be atypical in this regard.

I finished reading it, and when I was alone, I prayed to ask if it was true, being well aware of the feelings I was supposed to feel. And I really did! I remember feeling somewhat carried aloft by the swelling, pulsating sensations of the Spirit — or perhaps some other internal organ located near the chest area.

That experience kept me in that church for decades. As with the effect of homeopathic pills, it was never quite effective as it was on the first miraculous experience. But I was sold.

What didn’t occur to me until much later was that the consequences of not having that spiritual confirmation were too terrifying to contemplate. Parents wrong? Entire ontological system a myth? Future plans a waste of time? Setting myself against my family, friends, community, and entire support network? Brain said: Tell you what, endocrine system — it’s make-or-break time. Give him the buzz — he’s already worked up — and we can work out the rest later.

What was Oliver’s gift?

Here’s a rather cryptic passage from D&C 8, written to Oliver Cowdery.

D&C 8:5 Oh, remember these words, and keep my commandments. Remember, this is your gift.
6 Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things;
7 Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you.

Gift of Aaron?

Aaron was Moses’ brother, and his gift was the gift of gab. He did the talking while Moses did the revealing. But that’s not the gift here.

Aaron also had a rod (supposedly) that he could throw down on the ground and turn into a snake.

Exodus 7:9 When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, Shew a miracle for you: then thou shalt say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and cast it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent.
7:10 And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the LORD had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent.
7:11 Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments.
7:12 For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.

Okay, now things are getting interesting! The association with the rod of Aaron is apt, but even now we’re not on the right track. The rod being referred to here is a dowsing rod.

I just want to give credit where credit is due: I never would have known this without the Joseph Smith Papers, which the LDS Church has published. Unlike some of the church essays, they’re not shy about publishing them online — or even linking to them from a story about Oliver Cowdery. Good on them for putting this out there, even though it’s a little… out there.

So let’s get to the good stuff. What about this rod? Here’s the link.

O remember these words & keep my commandments remember this is thy gift now this is not all for thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout

Sprout?

Well, the article is helpful again, because it has a footnote:

In preparing the text of Revelation Book 1 for publication, Sidney Rigdon replaced “sprout” with “rod.” Green, flexible shoots or rods cut from hazel, peach, or cherry trees were sometimes used as divining rods.

There you have it. Oliver was intended to use a divining rod. That makes the following passage make more sense:

D&C 8:8 Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.
9 And, therefore, whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that will I grant unto you, and you shall have knowledge concerning it.

What a shame, though — Oliver was rubbish at using it, especially to translate documents. How do you translate with a stick? Probably the same way you translate with a rock in a hat. I don’t know. Maybe that’s because divining rods are complete rubbish. People still use them to try to find water, but no one can do it under controlled conditions. They do try, though. And fail.

Ask: In this video, what evidence do people offer for dowsing?
Answer: Anecdotes.

Ask: How do the dowsers respond when they fail?
Answer: One man says that a mischievous prankster god is thwarting him for fun. One woman is shattered.

Dowsing is (or was) the most common form of paranormal claim that claimants brought before James Randi’s million dollar challenge. No one ever managed to demonstrate such an ability under controlled conditions.

However, frauds (like Joseph Smith) still try to use them to fleece the credulous. A man named James McCormick sold fake bomb detectors — which were just dowsing rods — to the Iraqi government for $60,000 a pop. They probably were responsible for deaths, as these useless devices were actually being used at checkpoints to detect bombs. McCormick was jailed.

Ask: What kinds of questions are Latter-day Saints encouraged to answer using this phoney method of personal revelation?
Answer: The most important questions in life, including whom to marry, what to study, where to live, and what work to take.

Ask: What kind of trouble can someone get into for using fake intuitive methods to solve real problems?

BoM Lesson 33 (Remember)

“A Sure Foundation”

Helaman 1–5

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To help readers build on a solid foundation of science

Reading

Having escaped the book of Alma, we’re spiralling into the book of Helaman. More wars. More armies. So many armies that fought and died without leaving any physical traces.

Helaman 1:14 And it came to pass in the forty and first year of the reign of the judges, that the Lamanites had gathered together an innumerable army of men, and armed them with swords, and with cimeters and with bows, and with arrows, and with head-plates, and with breastplates, and with all manner of shields of every kind.

This wasn’t just an army of hundreds of thousands of men. This army was “innumerable”. Apparently an infinite number of people were armed with swords and shields and armour, and no one can find any traces of them.

Meanwhile — oh, look — another Viking sword just last week.

A group of Icelandic goose hunters got more than they bargained for during a recent outing – they didn’t catch a single bird, but stumbled upon a Viking sword thought to be more than 1,000 years old.

The five men were in Skaftarhreppur in southern Iceland when they found the sword, which they think may have washed up during a recent flood, the Visir news website reports….

The agency’s director, Kristin Huld Sigurdardottir, says only 20 swords of this age have been discovered in Iceland before, making it a significant find. It didn’t take much effort on the hunters’ part, though. “It was just lying there, waiting to be picked up – it was obvious and just lying there on the ground,” one of them, Runar Stanley Sighvatsson, tells Iceland Monitor.

Again, fictional people don’t leave archaeological traces.

Pride

There’s another warning against pride.

Helaman 3:33 And in the fifty and first year of the reign of the judges there was peace also, save it were the pride which began to enter into the church — not into the church of God, but into the hearts of the people who professed to belong to the church of God —
3:34 And they were lifted up in pride, even to the persecution of many of their brethren. Now this was a great evil, which did cause the more humble part of the people to suffer great persecutions, and to wade through much affliction.

Ask: Think of a time when you felt proud. When you felt this way, did you want to persecute anyone?

Probably not, if you felt proud of yourself or of something you did. Nationalism or insecurity have that effect, but not pride.

Pride is forbidden, not because it makes you persecute people, but because in a system where you must always be subordinate, it’s not okay to feel good about yourself or anything you do.

I think the Book of Mormon was written by someone who didn’t understand how feelings work.

Main ideas for this lesson

What is a sure foundation?

Latter-day Saints promote the idea that their ideology is built on a firm foundation. They even sing a rousing hymn called “How Firm a Foundation”. Every kid in Nursery knows that song about the wise man who built his house upon a rock. And there are scriptures like this one:

Helaman 5:12 And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.

And the LDS Gospel Doctrine Manual says this:

After the hymn or song, explain that today’s lesson shows the difference between people who build on weak foundations, such as people who place their trust in wealth or physical strength, and people who build their foundations on “the rock of [their] Redeemer, . . . which is a sure foundation” (Helaman 5:12).

I’m led to think, however, that this emphasis on having a strong foundation is simply wishful thinking, or trying to make it so by repeating it over and over.

If the LDS Church is true, then

  • it was brought about by a known con-man who had a thing for underage girls
  • its foundational document is plagued with anachronisms, and has no evidence to support it
  • it has prophets, seers, and revelators who avoid revealing anything, except when it comes to anti-LGBT policy
  • it worships a god who could demonstrate his existence unambiguiously but doesn’t, and also worships his son, whose evidentiary basis is flimsy
  • it requires a small army of apologists and thinkers to make up explanations for why we don’t see what we expect to see
  • it encourages its members not to engage with people or materials that could disprove its claims
  • it teaches its members that the strongest evidence for its truthfulness is emotional reasoning, one of the worst kinds of evidence
  • it exists side-by-side with similar churches, but is much less successful at building and maintaining its population, even though it uses similar methods

Ask: Does this seem like a firm foundation?

Ask: What would be a better foundation to build on?

My answer is science. We have the combined knowledge of millennia, and the methods and techniques to get more. Occasionally we find that the things we’ve learned are wrong or incomplete, but we can discard those things without harming the whole structure, because we understand that they have a human origin. At any given point in time, we have the best repository of knowledge that humanity is capable of, and we’re always updating it.

Read this poem by the Digital Cuttlefish.

Two Books
There was a man who had a book
Of Things Which He Believed;
He followed it religiously—
He would not be deceived.

The story in its pages was
The Truth that he adored—
The world outside its ancient script,
He faithfully ignored.

When someone found a falsehood
Or a small mistake inside it
(Or even some tremendous flaw)
He eagerly denied it.

The Truth was there inside his book
And never found outside
If something contradicted it
Why then, that something lied

And when he met another man
Who had another book,
He fell not to temptation—why,
He didn’t even look.

And, surely, there are other men
With other books in hand
Who walk, with views obstructed,
Here and there across the land

****

There was a man who had a book
(I find this quite exciting)
Who looked upon a tangled bank
And then… he started writing.

He wrote about the things he saw
And what he saw them do
And when he found mistakes he’d made
He wrote about them, too

He shared his book with other men
And women that he met—
They found the catch is bigger, when
You cast a wider net.

They shared their observations
So that everyone could read;
They worked as a community,
The better to succeed.

They found they saw much further,
And discovered so much more
When they stood upon the shoulders
Of the ones who’d gone before

It’s a book that keeps evolving,
Always growing, as we learn.
Many people help to write it:
Would you like to take a turn?

Obsession with secret societies

The Book of Mormon reflects the conditions of its time. At the time, secret societies were all the rage. The Masons, the Druids, and even a group called the Society of Flagellants! And of course, the Illuminati.

illuminaughty_o_2068459

By the 1830s, frontier America was reacting with alarm to these secret societies. The Anti-Masonic Party formed in 1828, with a view to stopping these supposedly subversive elements, and combatting the danger they represented.

And predictably, the Book of Mormon laments the secret societies — here, secret combinations — that bring down the Nephites.

Helaman 1:11 And he went unto those that sent him, and they all entered into a covenant, yea, swearing by their everlasting Maker, that they would tell no man that Kishkumen had murdered Pahoran.

Helaman 2:2 And it came to pass that Helaman, who was the son of Helaman, was appointed to fill the judgment-seat, by the voice of the people.
2:3 But behold, Kishkumen, who had murdered Pahoran, did lay wait to destroy Helaman also; and he was upheld by his band, who had entered into a covenant that no one should know his wickedness.
2:4 For there was one Gadianton, who was exceedingly expert in many words, and also in his craft, to carry on the secret work of murder and of robbery; therefore he became the leader of the band of Kishkumen.

Did anyone notice the “flaxen cord”, back in 2 Nephi?

2 Nephi 26:22 And there are also secret combinations, even as in times of old, according to the combinations of the devil, for he is the founder of all these things; yea, the founder of murder, and works of darkness; yea, and he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever.

Flaxen cord? That’s a reference to a Masonic symbol known as the “cable tow“.

The Cable Tow is a symbol of the First Degree and represents the candidates bond to his guide. In some esoteric circles it represents the umbilical cord.

The Masonic Library elaborates.

The word tow has another significance, in addition to pulling or dragging, it also means the fiber of flax, or hemp, or jute. A cable might be made of plaited wire, or of metal links, or of manmade fibers, but the combination “cable-tow” which seems to be of purely Masonic usage, implies almost certainly the natural fiber from which the rope is to be made.

In other words, the Book of Mormon perpetuates the anti-Masonic feeling that was current at the time, by comparing one of Freemasonry’s symbols with satanic enslavement.

Remember, Masonry doesn’t go back to Solomon. It’s a recent thing. It goes back no farther than the 1500s. So this really is a tip-off to the Book of Mormon’s recent origins.

What’s really weird (and hypocritical) is how much like a secret society Mormonism became. It had obscure rituals (cribbed from Freemasonry, btw), a tradition of quietly embedding itself in politics, and secret oaths and codewords. They keep their finances pretty secret, too. Check out this post from Redditor curious_mormon for the full story.

Remember

This Book of Mormon reading places a great deal of emphasis on remembering.

Helaman 5:4 And it came to pass that Nephi had become weary because of their iniquity; and he yielded up the judgment-seat, and took it upon him to preach the word of God all the remainder of his days, and his brother Lehi also, all the remainder of his days;
5:5 For they remembered the words which their father Helaman spake unto them. And these are the words which he spake:
5:6 Behold, my sons, I desire that ye should remember to keep the commandments of God; and I would that ye should declare unto the people these words. Behold, I have given unto you the names of our first parents who came out of the land of Jerusalem; and this I have done that when you remember your names ye may remember them; and when ye remember them ye may remember their works; and when ye remember their works ye may know how that it is said, and also written, that they were good.

So does the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual.

In the Book of Mormon there are over 240 instances of the word remember or forms of the word (such as remembered, remembrance, or forget not). Fifteen of these instances are in Helaman 5. What must we remember? (See Helaman 5:9; see also Mosiah 3:17.) Why is it important to remember?

Mormons have the idea that if people leave the church, it’s because they’ve somehow forgotten about how wonderful it is. They’ve simply forgotten about testimony-building experiences.

Take it from Dieter Uchtdorf.

977f65454ddbbaa1b53356643d10500a

What he’s actually describing is not forgetting. It’s a normal reaction when you stop believing that something’s true, which you’d carefully conned yourself into believing for years. When you can finally see things without the Mormon filter, you sort of shake your head in amazement at all the crazy things you’d believed.

One day recently, a pair of Mormon missionaries came over for dinner. I like to have them over because they’re usually quite nice. Also — let’s face it — I also feel kind of bad for them, because I remember what it was like. And finally, I want them to see that you can leave the church and live a good, ethical life as an unbeliever, and apostasy doesn’t have to spiral into drug abuse and cannibalism. (Those are optional.)

So on this particular night, in our after-dinner discussion, the younger of the two thought he’d explain why I left. I wrote it down afterwards because it was so perfect. He said,

I think what happened is:
you stopped praying
you stopped reading the scriptures
and over the course of time, you stopped going to church
and then you stopped believing it was true.

It was amazing. Four complete misses! I was pleased to let him know that he was quite wrong on every point. If anything, he had it in reverse order in my case.

When you’re going through deconversion, and you recognise that you’ve been utterly, terribly wrong on everything, and you’re wondering what it all means, and one of those things is the loss of your social group and your status in a community and your mental model of the entire universe — not to mention all the time and money you’ve invested — you don’t just drift away. In my case, I prayed harder! I read the scriptures with a new intensity. I went to church for a good solid six months after I no longer believed. (That’s what finally finished my testimony off.)

So when this young elder told me what he thought my reasons were… I was secretly glad. Why glad? Here’s why.

Mormons simply do not understand why people leave, or what deconversion is like. They could ask someone who’s been through it, but they never do. That might open up an unwanted conversation — and besides, they know already! It’s because we forgot.

Except we don’t just forget. I could tell you the details of all my biggest and most convincing spiritual experiences. I remember everything. I just don’t think they mean what I used to think they mean. I’ve reordered my evidentiary model.

But Mormons don’t get this. And because they don’t understand why people leave, they won’t be able to stop it. The die-off will continue. And that makes me very glad, even though I know Mormons won’t be able to help someone who’s hurting. That’s where I come in. And not just me — a whole lot of other ex-Mormons who have formed supportive communities of disbelief.

Sadly, there’s another consequence of Mormons not getting it when it comes to apostasy. They blame themselves for their church’s failures. Here’s a scripture that lets them do that.

Helaman 4:22 And that they had altered and trampled under their feet the laws of Mosiah, or that which the Lord commanded him to give unto the people; and they saw that their laws had become corrupted, and that they had become a wicked people, insomuch that they were wicked even like unto the Lamanites.
4:23 And because of their iniquity the church had begun to dwindle; and they began to disbelieve in the spirit of prophecy and in the spirit of revelation; and the judgments of God did stare them in the face.
4:24 And they saw that they had become weak, like unto their brethren, the Lamanites, and that the Spirit of the Lord did no more preserve them; yea, it had withdrawn from them because the Spirit of the Lord doth not dwell in unholy temples

That’s right; when you’re bad, you get abandoned by the Holy Spook, your supposed source of spiritual strength. And then the church collapses. But it’s not because of the lack of evidence, the sinister leaders, or the lack of tangible benefit. It’s you.

I really hope that church members today aren’t blaming themselves for the failure of the church and the current on-going final apostasy. But this scripture might have that effect.

Additional lesson ideas

Cement

I always thought cement was an anachronism in the Book of Mormon.

Helaman 3:3 And it came to pass in the forty and sixth, yea, there was much contention and many dissensions; in the which there were an exceedingly great many who departed out of the land of Zarahemla, and went forth unto the land northward to inherit the land.

3:7 And there being but little timber upon the face of the land, nevertheless the people who went forth became exceedingly expert in the working of cement; therefore they did build houses of cement, in the which they did dwell.
3:8 And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east.
3:9 And the people who were in the land northward did dwell in tents, and in houses of cement, and they did suffer whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land that it should grow up, that in time they might have timber to build their houses, yea, their cities, and their temples, and their synagogues, and their sanctuaries, and all manner of their buildings.
3:10 And it came to pass as timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward, they did send forth much by the way of shipping.
3:11 And thus they did enable the people in the land northward that they might build many cities, both of wood and of cement.

3:14 But behold, a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people, yea, the account of the Lamanites and of the Nephites, and their wars, and contentions, and dissensions, and their preaching, and their prophecies, and their shipping and their building of ships, and their building of temples, and of synagogues and their sanctuaries, and their righteousness, and their wickedness, and their murders, and their robbings, and their plundering, and all manner of abominations and whoredoms, cannot be contained in this work.

But it looks like I was wrong. Cement — or something like cement — has been found in Mesoamerica.

They most often utilized limestone, which remained pliable enough to be worked with stone tools while being quarried, and only hardened once when removed from its bed. In addition to the structural use of limestone, much of their mortar consisted of crushed, burnt, and mixed limestone that mimicked the properties of cement and was used just as widely for stucco finishing as it was for mortar.

Not actual houses of cement, which the Book of Mormon says there were apparently so many as to cover “the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east”. Ideally you’d want to find the houses, but we do see something like cement, so the Book of Mormon gets this one on a technicality.

I think this is the real problem with the Book of Mormon. If so many people were building cement buildings, ships, and temples in such abundance, then we should be able to find them. Shoot — we should be able to see them from Google Earth. But we don’t. And instead, by way of defence, apologists say, “Well, something like cement has been found in a few places.”

The other problem is that things that we know existed don’t appear in the Book of Mormon. It would have easy to write,

Behold, they did construct walls hewn of stone with such exactness that a hair would not fit between the stones.

That’s something we do observe, but not in the Book of Mormon.

7-manmade-wonders-sacsayhuaman

If it’s true, it should be obviously more true. But it’s not. That’s God, you know. Always operating on the margins of credibility.

BoM Lesson 29 (Alma’s fatherly advice)

“Give Ear to My Words”

Alma 36–39

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage parents to give better parental advice than Alma does

Reading

There’s a bit of a lull in the action for this reading. Time for Alma to give one of his trademark fatherly chats! He speaks to his three sons — Helaman, Shiblon, and Corianton — and gives really terrible advice. Let’s see how bad it gets.

Main ideas for this lesson

Helaman

In his chat with Helaman, Alma explains that God’s love is unconditional… but with conditions.

Alma 37:13 O remember, remember, my son Helaman, how strict are the commandments of God. And he said: If ye will keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land — but if ye keep not his commandments ye shall be cut off from his presence.

Ask: Would a good parent cast off children for not doing everything they say?

Musical number: Sing this song with the class. (CW: language, possible casual misogyny)

Free will and divine hiddenness

When you ask a theist why God doesn’t resolve his apparent lack of existence by just appearing to everyone, a common answer is that God wants people to believe in him in faith, without needing evidence. If God were to prove his existence, it would essentially force us to believe in him and remove the need for faith.

But what about Alma and his friends? They saw an angel, and that didn’t remove their free will.

Alma 36:5 Now, behold, I say unto you, if I had not been born of God I should not have known these things; but God has, by the mouth of his holy angel, made these things known unto me, not of any worthiness of myself.
36:6 For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.
36:7 And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

But Alma’s certain that God will resurrect him. He’s just as certain as he is about the Exodus, and the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea… which also didn’t happen.

Alma 36:28 And I know that he will raise me up at the last day, to dwell with him in glory; yea, and I will praise him forever, for he has brought our fathers out of Egypt, and he has swallowed up the Egyptians in the Red Sea; and he led them by his power into the promised land; yea, and he has delivered them out of bondage and captivity from time to time.

Whoops.

And if you say that Alma is dumb for believing in fairy tales, then he has an answer for you. His belief makes him smarter than wise people.

Alma 37:6 Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.
37:7 And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls.

So what does all this mean for Helaman? It means that when he writes about how wicked everyone is, he’s supposed to hold back on information.

Alma 37:29 Therefore ye shall keep these secret plans of their oaths and their covenants from this people, and only their wickedness and their murders and their abominations shall ye make known unto them; and ye shall teach them to abhor such wickedness and abominations and murders; and ye shall also teach them that these people were destroyed on account of their wickedness and abominations and their murders.

In the LDS Church, there’s a pattern of incomplete disclosure. The church is cagey about its finances. It tells only one side of its history. Its higher-level ordinances (like the endowment) are not explained to people who have not already accepted a series of commitments — and who are therefore less likely to disengage from their investment.

Ask: What kind of organisation relies on incomplete informational disclosure to “protect” its membership from facts?
Answer: Check out Steve Hassan’s BITE model, under “Information Control”. While this model is not well-accepted by psychologists, it is interesting to see how many of the LDS Church’s practices it describes.

1. Deception:

a. Deliberately withhold information
b. Distort information to make it more acceptable
c. Systematically lie to the cult member

2. Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:

a. Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, other media
b.Critical information
c. Former members
d. Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
e. Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking

3. Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines

a. Ensure that information is not freely accessible
b.Control information at different levels and missions within group
c. Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when

4. Encourage spying on other members

a. Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
b.Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
c. Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group

5. Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:

a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media
b.Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources

6. Unethical use of confession

a. Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
b. Withholding forgiveness or absolution
c. Manipulation of memory, possible false memories

Ask: If the church is true, why would it need to roll out unpalatable information carefully?

There’s a scene from the Australian TV show Offspring that describes this situation.

***SPOILERS AHEAD for season 5***

Also don’t mock me for watching Offspring, I have a wife.

Here’s the short version:

In Wednesday night’s explosive episode of the popular Network Ten series Nina, played by Gold Logie-winner Asher Keddie, is confronted with the fact her new lover Thomas (Ben Barrington) is not only married, but had been cheating on his heavily pregnant wife.

His secret came out when a birth complication forced Thomas and his unknowing wife to Nina’s hospital instead of the maternity ward they had planned.

Quite a scene: Nina attends what she thinks is a routine delivery, and finds… her new boyfriend acting as birth coach to his wife.

When Thomas speaks to Nina later, he claims that his wife was actually his ex, and defends his lack of disclosure, saying:

Would you have started something with me if you knew my ex was pregnant?

Nina responds:

Well, shouldn’t that have been up to me?

And there it is. Maybe members would bail if everything were public. Maybe investigators wouldn’t like it if they knew that Joseph Smith had 30 wives, some as young as 14. But isn’t that up to them? How are we supposed to make good choices if the facts aren’t available?

Shiblon

Shiblon’s the middle child, so nothing interesting happens in his chapter. Alma tells the same conversion story that he just told Helaman, tells him to keep being good, yada yada yada.

Next!

Corianton

We all know Coriander because he’s the only character in the Book of Mormon who got any sex. This was, of course, with the legendary harlot Isabel™, who is one of only six women mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon, and the only one with an occupation.

Alma 39:2 For thou didst not give so much heed unto my words as did thy brother, among the people of the Zoramites. Now this is what I have against thee; thou didst go on unto boasting in thy strength and thy wisdom.
39:3 And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron, among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel.

Trivia: Who were the other five women? Answers are at the bottom of this post.

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Observation about two names in the Book of Mormon: Corianton. Morianton. Discuss.

Alma’s parental counsel is terrible on so many levels. Let’s list them.

Alma blames Isabel.

Alma 39:4 Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted.

Why, that scheming hussy!

Alma wigs out, blowing sex all out of proportion

Alma 39:5 Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?

Mormons say that sex is “the sin next to murder”, and this verse is why.

Fancy that: a bit of casual boinking — even when pursued responsibly and consensually — is almost as bad as murdering someone. This is a kind of — excuse the gendered term — hysterical anti-sex attitude that turns the concept of morality upside-down. Sex harms no one when it’s done well, but it can be awful when done badly. Ironically, it’s this kind of attitude that causes it to be done badly. You cannot have a normal sexual life with priorities as screwed up as this.

A lot has been said on the futility of teaching abstinence. It does not prevent kids from having sex, but that’s only part of the problem. It also promotes rape culture.

Purity culture and rape culture are two sides of the same coin. Prior to marriage, women are instructed that they must say no to sex at every turn, and if they do not they are responsible for the consequences. This method of approach—“always no”—creates situations in which women are not equipped to fully understand what consent looks like or what a healthy sexual encounter is. When the only tool you’re given is a “no,” shame over rape or assault becomes compounded—because you don’t necessarily understand or grasp that “giving in” to coercion or “not saying no” isn’t a “yes.”

That’s from the girl’s perspective. From the boy’s side, you never learn what’s okay and what’s not okay because nothing is okay. Consent is a subtlety that doesn’t make the curriculum. This is not to excuse failure to obtain informed consent — you might have your own ideas about what’s twisted and what’s not, but they’ll have to be your own ideas; you won’t get them from the wider culture. Or you will, but it will be mixed up with a lot of other stuff.

This unrelenting sex-negativity is one of the most harmful things about the church. It fills people up with shame for their innermost desires. It tampers with who they are on a basic level.

For a better way, check out what I teach my kids about sex. I wrote this lesson a couple of years ago, and in the meantime, my youngest boy started dating. So I told him, “That means I have to tell you the things.”

“No,” he said, “you don’t have to tell me the things!”

“I do have to tell you the things, because it’s my job to tell you the things.”

So I told him the things, and afterward he said, “That wasn’t too bad.”

That’s how I broke the curse.

Alma blames Coriander for his own lack of success

Alma 39:11 Suffer not yourself to be led away by any vain or foolish thing; suffer not the devil to lead away your heart again after those wicked harlots. Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.

Oh sure, it’s not because Alma’s selling a shit product. It’s Coriander.

Why would Coriander’s actions have this effect on the Lamanites? They weren’t even Christians yet, and therefore unlikely to be puritanical ninnies.

Testimonies are not good evidence

The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual asks:

• Alma 36 contains Alma’s testimony as expressed to his son Helaman (see especially verses 3–5 and 26–28). Why is it important for children to hear their parents bear their testimonies? In what ways have your parents’ testimonies influenced your life?

I can tell you. My father told me lots of good things, but probably the worst information I got in life was given to me by him. It was when he sat me down, and very earnestly told me that if I had a question about anything, I could ask my Heavenly Father in prayer, and get an answer. And I believed him.

That was the worst thing anyone ever told me.

Rather than understanding that knowledge comes through careful, controlled observation, he taught me that knowing something was simply asking a deity and then sorting through your feels.

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Knowledge doesn’t come from feels. Basically he turned me into an an amateur intuitive. And that leaves people vulnerable to scammers and charlatans. Goodbye, critical thinking; hello, mysticism.

What parent tries to disable their child’s brain? Who tries to defeat their kid’s truth-finding mechanism? That’s not normal, but on religion it is.

I’m raising my kids with the Latin phrase nullius in verba. I’m telling them, “Don’t believe anything just because someone says it’s so — including me, because I could be wrong. Don’t believe anyone’s testimony.”

Additional lesson ideas

How to share?

The Gospel Doctrine manual asks:

• Alma counseled Shiblon to continue teaching the word of God, being “diligent and temperate,” using “boldness, but not overbearance” (Alma 38:10, 12.) How can we follow this counsel as we share our beliefs with others?

In fact, overbearance isn’t such a big problem, but backfire effect is. Telling someone correct information they don’t like can make them believe incorrect information more.

To avoid this, check out the Debunking Handbook by John Cook and Stephen Lewandowsky. It’s a must for anyone who needs to communicate ideas.

Answer: Mary, Eve, Sarah, Sariah, Abish, Beyoncé.

BoM Lesson 28 (Faith as a seed)

“The Word Is in Christ unto Salvation”

Alma 32–35

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage readers not to engage in wishful thinking and emotional reasoning

Reading

What is faith?

That was the question posed by my Stake President. He called me into his office one Sunday. I think he’d heard that I’d been having concerns. It was a great meeting! I was finally able to tell a church leader — to his face — that I thought the church’s claims lacked evidence.

“But that’s why there’s faith,” he said. “What do you think faith is?”

I knew I had an answer — I’d thought about this just a couple of days before — but I didn’t say it.

He pressed. “What is faith? I’m asking you.”

Well, he was asking. So I hit him with it.

I said, “Faith is the willingness to suspend critical reasoning facilities… in the service of a belief for which there’s no adequate evidence.

He stopped for a second. Then, to my surprise, he sort of agreed.

The discussion went on, but I think that discussion said everything about faith from a Mormon and an ex-Mormon perspective.

(Incidentally, I wrote a blog post shortly after the incident, and you can read it here. I didn’t go back and re-read it before I wrote this. Did I remember it accurately? Did I embellish? We all know memory is constructed. Here’s a chance to see how memory changes.)

In this lesson, Alma talks about faith. In religion, faith is considered a wonderful virtue that makes all things possible. I think faith is a terrible reason to believe something, and we need to stop thinking that faith is some kind of virtue.

Main ideas for this lesson

Preying upon the poor

As our story begins, Alma comes across the people who were kicked out of their synagogues for being poor.

Alma 32:5 And they came unto Alma; and the one who was the foremost among them said unto him: Behold, what shall these my brethren do, for they are despised of all men because of their poverty, yea, and more especially by our priests; for they have cast us out of our synagogues which we have labored abundantly to build with our own hands; and they have cast us out because of our eexceeding poverty; and we have no place to worship our God; and behold, what shall we do?
32:6 And now when Alma heard this, he turned him about, his face immediately towards him, and he beheld with great joy; for he beheld that their afflictions had truly humbled them and that they were in a preparation to hear the word.

Humility

Ask: If you went on a mission for the LDS Church, which neighbourhoods were your most successful: rich ones or poor ones?

I don’t think anyone sees a great deal of success in areas where people are comfortable. That’s mirrored in this passage.

Alma 32:12 I say unto you, it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues, that ye may be humble, and that ye may learn wisdom; for it is necessary that ye should learn wisdom; for it is because that ye are cast out, that ye are despised of your brethren because of your exceeding poverty, that ye are brought to a lowliness of heart; for ye are necessarily brought to be humble.
32:13 And now, because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved.
32:14 And now, as I said unto you, that because ye were compelled to be humble ye were blessed, do ye not suppose that they are more blessed who truly humble themselves because of the word?

The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual asks:

• Why was it a blessing to these Zoramites that they had been compelled to be humble? (See Alma 32:12–13.) Why is it better to humble ourselves than to be compelled to be humble? (See Alma 32:14–16.) How can the word of God lead us to humble ourselves?

Ask: Why does the church promote humility?

Humility is a good thing generally. There’s an awful lot we don’t know, and we need to acknowledge as much. Otherwise, we won’t be open to new knowledge, and who couldn’t use a little of that?

This is precisely why I find it so galling that there’s a church whose leaders claim to know the mind and will of God. It’s the opposite of humility.

Arrogance of Faith

Atheists, by contrast, don’t think the universe was created for humans, and don’t think their moral system was handed to them by a god.

atheist arrogance

Ask: What’s the function of these verses? Why does a church that thinks it has God’s mobile number demand humility from its members?

A person with intellectual and emotional independence can ask questions and expect reasonable answers. That’s a disaster for a church that has none. But if you can inculcate a kind of intellectual docility in your members, you can use that as a fallback. “Have humility” is like saying “Have faith”. They’re an escape hatch for when the questions get too pointy. Sure, it’s okay not to know stuff, but if a church claims to have a prophet who reveals things to his servants the prophets, then why would there be gaps in knowledge? Is it that the Lord hasn’t revealed that yet, or is it a plot hole that will never get filled? It sure looks like the second. And why would God work to build a church with so many problems?

Ask: Why do well-off people not accept the gospel?

People who have enough don’t seem to need religion. The church pushes this as an indictment of rich people, but it’s actually a reflection on the church. In economic terms, religion is an inferior good. Just like you stop buying the generic ice cream when you can afford better, religion seems to work well enough until you get a better set of intellectual tools.

Christianity doesn’t have much to offer someone who’s doing well. But it has a lot to offer someone who’s at the end of their rope — a clean slate on sins and misdeeds, a second chance in life, promises of becoming a new person. (Too bad the promises are empty.)

If I were a church, I’d be in the business of promoting misery. Making people’s lives fall apart is a sure way to encourage dependence.

What is faith?

I often discuss faith with believers. But of course you need to define what faith is. I’ve given my definition above, but a more concise definition is this:

Faith is belief without evidence.

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Aron Ra elaborates.

Faith requires that we literally make-believe, that we presume, presuppose, and pretend; that we ignore what we really do see, and imagine something is there when it apparently isn’t.

Not everyone likes this definition, but Mormons should, because the Book of Mormon argues for it! Here’s the relevant passage.

Alma 32:17 Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe.

Not exactly, Alma. But if you can show evidence for any of theism’s fundamental claims, then I’ll change my mind about that thing in the blink of an eye. That’s how reasonable people do it. But let’s continue.

Alma 32:18 Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.

There it is. If you know something — if you have evidence for it — then you don’t need to have faith in that thing, or “believe” as Alma says. If you have evidence, you know it. Before the evidence, you simply believe — you have faith. Once you have evidence, you don’t need faith — it’s “dormant” (see v. 34).

So according to the Book of Mormon, faith is belief without evidence.

It's called faith because it's not knowledge

Alma reiterates.

Alma 32:21 And now as I said concerning faith — faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

Well, you hope they’re true, right?

There are lots of things that I hope are true, but hope’s not a good reason to believe that they’re true, is it? But for Alma, hope is a gateway drug to faith.

Alma 32:26 Now, as I said concerning faith — that it was not a perfect knowledge — even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.
32:27 But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

Look at how terrible this is. Even if you don’t have any evidence for an idea, you’re supposed to take whatever desire you have and convert it into hope, and then faith. Then later in a testimony meeting, you’re supposed to say that you “know” that thing.

This is known as “wishful thinking”. It’s one of the worst ways to decide what’s true, and yet Mormons want to lead you along bit by bit until you accept their ideas as true — in an evidentiary vacuum.

This is a terrible way to find out what’s true. Anything will seem more true if you want to believe it. If something is true, you don’t need to “hope” in it.

The seed, or: the experiment that wasn’t

Alma asks us to conduct an “experiment upon [his] words”. But is it a good experiment? Let’s see.

Alma 32:28 Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves — It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
32:29 Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.
32:30 But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

Alma’s experiment — as promoted by LDS missionaries, say — differs from a good experiment in at least two respects.

  • A good experiment attempts to be unbiased.

By contrast, the missionaries begin by loading the subject up with a wide array of vaguely expressed expectations. Galatians 5:22 is typically used: the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, and many others. If you feel any of those, this is taken as evidence for the truthfulness of the message. It would be difficult not to have some emotion that could be counted as a confirmation.

  • You have to count the negative cases as well as the positive.

However, when someone gets no answer, the experiment isn’t considered to have failed. Instead, the subject is assumed to have gotten the “wrong” answer, and is encouraged to try again until they get the answer that the missionaries want.

Here’s the short version of how you do it in church:

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I’ll have more to say about this when we get to Lesson 48, but for now, I’ll say this:

Emotional reasoning and wishful thinking are two of the worst methods of finding out what’s true. As forms of evidence, they’re at the bottom. But Mormons hold them up as the best and most reliable sources of evidence that there is.

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The LDS Church has taken these psychological devices — these failings of human cognition — and parlayed them into a large membership — and a vast financial empire. It’s not just wrong. It’s an especially pernicious form of intellectual evil. Alma’s “seed” is that of an invasive plant. If you have it, consider rooting it out of your breast. Critical thinking is the dandelion-digger. Reading is the weed-killer.

Additional lesson ideas

Vicarious sacrifice for sin is immoral

Jesus was supposed to have given his life for the sins of the world. He got it back three days later, which why it’s very important to save your receipt.

Alma 34:9 For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made.
34:10 For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.
34:11 Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay.

Tell ’em, Alma. It’s wrong to put the responsibility for one person’s crimes onto an innocent person. So why is it okay for God to do this with his son?

Alma 34:12 But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.

Why? If God decided that he didn’t like certain actions, but made it possible for us to do them — in fact, gave us an inclination to want to do them — and then for some reason made it impossible for us to fix it ourselves…

…then why would getting his son killed help matters?

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For more on why vicarious sacrifice for sin is immoral, see NT Lesson 25 (Gethsemane).

BoM Lesson 27 (Korihor)

“All Things Denote There Is a God”

Alma 30–31

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show the poor reasoning in the LDS response to atheism, and that LDS arguments are designed to invalidate the experience of non-believers

Reading

This is one lesson that I’ve been looking forward to. It’s one of the interesting lessons, and it’s all because of Korihor — a character Joseph Smith wrote into the Book of Mormon. Aren’t the villains always the most interesting characters?

Korihor is a character from 1st century BCE Mesoamerica, but who for some reason sounds like a 19th-century Enlightenment-era atheist intellectual — the kind that Joseph Smith might have run across. Funny that.

Let’s get to the reading.

Korihor

Alma 30:5 And it came to pass that in the commencement of the seventeenth year of the reign of the judges, there was continual peace.
30:6 But it came to pass in the latter end of the seventeenth year, there came a man into the land of Zarahemla, and he was Anti-Christ, for he began to preach unto the people against the prophecies which had been spoken by the prophets, concerning the coming of Christ.
30:7 Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.
30:8 For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve.
30:9 Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him.

In Zarahemla, there’s no law saying you have to believe in a God, much like — ahem — modern America. Sounds great to me. I’m anti-Christ myself. And you shouldn’t get special privileges or different laws based on the religion you choose.

Let’s take a look at Korihor’s ideas. Are they quite good, or a cartoony idea of what atheists think? Let’s take a look.

Alma 30:12 And this Anti-Christ, whose name was Korihor, (and the law could have no hold upon him) began to preach unto the people that there should be no Christ. And after this manner did he preach, saying:
30:13 O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come.

Not quite true. While there’s always some uncertainty about the future, there is something that allows us to make predictions: science.

Sometimes people challenge me on science — or as they’re fond of calling it, “scientism”. They have the idea that science is just one narrative, and it shouldn’t be privileged over other narratives. I’ve been asked: How do you know that science isn’t just one way of thinking that’s internally coherent, but which ultimately has nothing to do with the real world and relates only to itself?

My response: We know that science pertains to the real world because it allows us to predict the future. Or to use other words: by observing what we can of reality, we can make hypotheses that explain what we’re observing. Then we can use these hypotheses to predict future events. A good hypothesis is one that explains our observations, and which has predictive power.

Religions do not have a good track record when it comes to predicting the future. Here’s one of my favourite examples:

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We will never get a man into space. This Earth is man’s sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it.

The moon is a superior planet to the Earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen.

Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith at Stake Conference in Honolulu, May 14, 1961

Oh, but he was just an apostle at the time. Why would expect him to know anything about that? You might as well ask the cat.

Alma 30:14 Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.

I think Mormon teachings are foolish traditions. I’m very grateful for the work of NewNameNoah, who has taken the LDS temple ceremonies, and exposed them to a wider audience. Mormons hate it — and I think that’s in part because they know that their ceremonies are ridiculous. They act like someone who feels silly because they’ve been caught doing something foolish.

I mean, who dresses like this?

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One point for Korihor.

Alma 30:15 How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.

Can you know of things that you don’t see? This was a question posed to me by a well-meaning bishop who came for a visit.

It depends on your definition of “know”. If you’re an intuitive type who thinks knowing means “believing very strongly”, then you might say yes.

But if you’re an empiricist — and empiricism is the bedrock of science — then you’d say that evidence has to be observable. Feelings are evidence of how you’re feeling — your internal state — but not for anything external, or outside yourself.

Alma 30:16 Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so.

Frenzy and derangement are strong words. I prefer the term delusion — a fixed belief, contrary to fact.

Alma 30:17 And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.

Whoa — that’s not a good reflection of my views. I think whatsoever a man does is no sin. Crime is another matter.

I do think, however, that people should prosper according to their genius. Look at someone like Elon Musk, who’s using his intelligence and vision to change our system of transport and energy, taking us away from fossil fuels and into a future of renewable power. That’s a huge benefit to humankind.

Alma 30:18 And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms

LOL — men too? That really is whoredoms.

Alma 30:18 …telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.

Does anyone have any evidence of a life after death? Not near-death experiences — they can be induced in people who aren’t near death.

And don’t even get me started on those books where a kid dies. (Click on the graphic for the full cartoon.)

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Seriously, which story seems more straightforward to you?

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To say nothing of the secret passwords and handshakes.

And how was Korihor’s teaching received? Not very well.

Alma 30:19 Now this man went over to the land of Jershon also, to preach these things among the people of Ammon, who were once the people of the Lamanites.
30:20 But behold they were more wise than many of the Nephites; for they took him, and bound him, and carried him before Ammon, who was a high priest over that people.
30:21 And it came to pass that he caused that he should be carried out of the land. And he came over into the land of Gideon, and began to preach unto them also; and here he did not have much success, for he was taken and bound and carried before the high priest, and also the chief judge over the land.

WTF? Even though the writer (presumably Alma) made a big deal out of saying that there was no law against a person’s belief, the minute someone says something contrary, they get tied up and ejected. Twice! And Alma comments on how wise this was, so he evidently approves.

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Alma 30:22 And it came to pass that the high priest said unto him: Why do ye go about perverting the ways of the Lord? Why do ye teach this people that there shall be no Christ, to interrupt their rejoicings? Why do ye speak against all the prophecies of the holy prophets?

Here’s something that people say to skeptics: Why are you bothering us?

One night recently, I was outside a psychic event handing out bingo flyers.

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You wouldn’t believe how easy this is. All you have to do is identify people who are attending the event, hand them a flyer, and say, “I hope you enjoy the show.” And they just take the flyers!

I know this sounds terrible, but there are two kinds of people at these events:

  • groups of women aged 40–65, and
  • isolated men who are being dragged along.

Men as a rule simply do not seem to go for the psychic mediums. If I ever tried to hand a bingo card to men, they’d say “Oh, I’m not actually going to that.” (Perhaps they were just embarrassed.)

Anyway, on this particular evening, a women saw what I was handing out, and we had this conversation:

Her: The thing is — Why do you care?

Me: Because I think people need to have good information when they’re making choices.

Her: It’s entertainment! It’s in a theatre.

Me: Well, if someone is just here for a bit of a laugh, then there’s probably no harm done. But if they’ve lost someone, and they’re hurting, and someone takes their money — they’re playing with something they shouldn’t.

Her: But we tell kids about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It’s fun!

Me: I think people deserve informed consent.

Why do I care? I care about people having good information, and so should everyone.

Alma 30:23 Now the high priest’s name was Giddonah. And Korihor said unto him: Because I do not teach the foolish traditions of your fathers, and because I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to thy words.

Good for him — what else can we call it when humans claim authority over other humans because of some imaginary power?

Alma 30:24 Ye say that this people is a free people. Behold, I say they are in bondage. Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true.

In an earlier lesson, I mentioned a time when someone asked me: what if I was wrong, and the church was true? What I didn’t say at the time was this: If somehow in a complete evidentiary vacuum, the church turned out to be true, God existed, and Jesus and everything was just as they say — even if despite all probability they guessed everything right — then Mormons do not know they’re right.

They don’t know they’re right. The only way you can be sure you’re right is by observation of publicly available reality and evidence. And it’s darn hard to know something even then! So if you’re not even doing that, what chance do you have of getting it right? As I’ve said before, there is no other way of knowing. And if you know another way, please tell me about it. (Mathematics might be a good answer. But even that needs some empirical backup to make sure the results apply to our universe.)

Alma 30:25 Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgression of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty because of its parents.

Point goes to Korihor again. God unjustly punished Adam and Eve (so the story goes) because they committed an action before they knew right from wrong. Now we’re living in a world affected by their actions. The chapter never returns to this idea to answer Korihor’s criticism.

Alma 30:26 And ye also say that Christ shall come. But behold, I say that ye do not know that there shall be a Christ. And ye say also that he shall be slain for the sins of the world —
30:27 And thus ye lead away this people after the foolish traditions of your fathers, and according to your own desires; and ye keep them down, even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands, that they durst not look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges.
30:28 Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own lest they should offend their priests, who do yoke them according to their desires, and have brought them to believe, by their traditions and their dreams and their whims and their visions and their pretended mysteries, that they should, if they did not do according to their words, offend some unknown being, who they say is God — a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be.

With a few exceptions, this depiction of rational atheism / skepticism is pretty good.

But Korihor gets hauled up before the authorities — for the third time! — for teaching his brand of hedonistic anti-clerical atheism.

Alma 30:29 Now when the high priest and the chief judge saw the hardness of his heart, yea, when they saw that he would revile even against God, they would not make any reply to his words; but they caused that he should be bound; and they delivered him up into the hands of the officers, and sent him to the land of Zarahemla, that he might be brought before Alma, and the chief judge who was governor over all the land.

Alma 30:37 And then Alma said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God?
30:38 And he answered, Nay.
30:39 Now Alma said unto him: Will ye deny again that there is a God, and also deny the Christ? For behold, I say unto you, I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come.

No, you don’t. See above.

Alma 30:40 And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only.

Alma is trying to turn the tables here. He’s saying “I say there’s a god, you say there’s no god; so it’s all a wash because all beliefs are equivalent.”

But it doesn’t work like that. Alma is shifting the burden of evidence. The burden of evidence rests with the claimant. Alma is the one claiming that a god exists, so it’s up to him to provide evidence for that claim. Watch out when people try to shift the burden of evidence. By asking Korihor for evidence that something doesn’t exist, Alma is asking him to prove a negative. It may not be possible to prove that gods (or leprechauns, or unicorns) don’t exist — when the concept of a god is not well-defined.

On the other hand, if the god in question is well-defined, and we fail to see the kinds of things we should be able to see if such a god exists, then we can say that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

Neil deGrasse Tyson explains.

That doesn’t mean that believers aren’t creative when it comes to shifting the goalposts, as James Randi points out.

Alma continues:

Alma 30:41 But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? Believest thou that these things are true?
30:42 Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God.

This is one of the really annoying things believers say: I think you really do believe, even though you claim not to.

My response is: How about I tell you what I believe.

Now Korihor makes a perfectly reasonable request: Show me the evidence.

Alma 30:43 And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words.
30:44 But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

Here, Alma shows that he does not understand the kind of evidence that is required to support a claim. He does this in two ways:

  • He claims that words written by prophets in holy books counts as evidence. It does not. The people who wrote those books could have been mistaken, dishonest, or insane. And if we do allow scriptures as evidence, then whose? The Bible? The Quran? The Bhagavad-Gita? They’re all mutually contradictory. Picking one and not another is just special pleading — claiming that one set of scriptures is “different” somehow, but not saying why. Finally, you can’t use scriptures as evidence for a claim. They’re not evidence — they’re the claim. They need their own evidence.
  • He claims that the earth and the planets are evidence. (This is what I call the “look around” defence, because a young missionary once told me exactly that when I asked him for evidence: Look around!) The earth and the planets are only evidence if we presuppose that a god made them. But there are other explanations that don’t require us to believe in a magical being. This is a big problem for believers: there are better explanations for the kinds of things people cite as evidence.

Korihor pivots a little bit. Perhaps he realises that it’s difficult to prove a negative, so he says:

Alma 30:48 Now Korihor said unto him: I do not deny the existence of a God, but I do not believe that there is a God; and I say also, that ye do not know that there is a God; and except ye show me a sign, I will not believe.

At this, Alma has had enough.

Alma 30:49 Now Alma said unto him: This will I give unto thee for a sign, that thou shalt be struck dumb, according to my words; and I say, that in the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance.
30:50 Now when Alma had said these words, Korihor was struck dumb, that he could not have utterance, according to the words of Alma.

At this point, it looks like God is frustrated enough to harm Korihor. He doesn’t take call-outs well. On the other hand, while Korihor’s sudden muteness could be taken as evidence of God’s existence (and peevishness), there are other explanations. He could have gotten sudden laryngitis or had a stroke. An evil god could have taken his voice. When it comes to supernatural explanations, one is as untestable as another.

Alma 30:51 And now when the chief judge saw this, he put forth his hand and wrote unto Korihor, saying: Art thou convinced of the power of God? In whom did ye desire that Alma should show forth his sign? Would ye that he should afflict others, to show unto thee a sign? Behold, he has showed unto you a sign; and now will ye dispute more?

The chief judge is a bit of a dope; why is he writing? He can speak.

Having forfeited its believability, the story now descends into farce.

Alma 30:52 And Korihor put forth his hand and wrote, saying: I know that I am dumb, for I cannot speak; and I know that nothing save it were the power of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always knew that there was a God.
30:53 But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me.

That’s right, folks; Korihor believed in God the whole time. And this is what believers need to think: that critics are secret believers, really. We’re just lying when we say we don’t believe. And we’re literally influenced by the devil.

What a disservice. For believers, not only is there no legitimate reason not to believe, non-believers shouldn’t be trusted when they say they don’t. Maybe believers need to think this because the prospect of a real honest-to-goodness unbeliever with real honest-to-goodness reasons is way too threatening. If there are reasons, then maybe they should stop believing too — and that would mean loss of social group, loss of family, loss of identity, and loss of investment. That would take change, work, and self-analysis. Who wants to do that? And so believers take the lazy way out.

They don’t seem to notice that unbelievers never suddenly go mute. Instead, our voices are growing.

Well, that’s the end for old Korihor, except for his untimely end. Unable to answer his claims, God simply dispenses with him.

Alma 30:58 And it came to pass that they were all convinced of the wickedness of Korihor; therefore they were all converted again unto the Lord; and this put an end to the iniquity after the manner of Korihor. And Korihor did go about from house to house, begging food for his support.
30:59 And it came to pass that as he went forth among the people, yea, among a people who had separated themselves from the Nephites and called themselves Zoramites, being led by a man whose name was Zoram — and as he went forth amongst them, behold, he was run upon and trodden down, even until he was dead.
30:60 And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.

That’s confirmation bias there. Some of us do quite well, post-deconversion. But if anything ever did happen to me, I’m sure the dear old ward members would think of this chapter of Alma and infer some kind of judgment.

The Rameumptom

And then there’s a pretty humourous description of the Zoramites and their Rameumptom. Doesn’t that name sound like something Roald Dahl might have made up?

Alma 31:12 Now, when they had come into the land, behold, to their astonishment they found that the Zoramites had built synagogues, and that they did gather themselves together on one day of the week, which day they did call the day of the Lord; and they did worship after a manner which Alma and his brethren had never beheld;
31:13 For they had a place built up in the center of their synagogue, a place for standing, which was high above the head, and the top thereof would only admit one person.
31:14 Therefore, whosoever desired to worship must go forth and stand upon the top thereof, and stretch forth his hands towards heaven, and cry with a loud voice, saying:
31:15 Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever.
31:16 Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ.
31:17 But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.
31:18 And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.
31:19 Now it came to pass that after Alma and his brethren and his sons had heard these prayers, they were astonished beyond all measure.
31:20 For behold, every man did go forth and offer up these same prayers.
31:21 Now the place was called by them Rameumptom, which, being interpreted, is the holy stand.
31:22 Now, from this stand they did offer up, every man, the selfsame prayer unto God, thanking their God that they were chosen of him, and that he did not lead them away after the tradition of their brethren, and that their hearts were not stolen away to believe in things to come, which they knew nothing about.
31:23 Now, after the people had all offered up thanks after this manner, they returned to their homes, never speaking of their God again until they had assembled themselves together again to the holy stand, to offer up thanks after their manner.

Assign two class members to read the following story.

The first time I saw it was in the venerable Student Review which operated out of BYU in the early 90s. Any information about the author would be welcome.

Cast: A father and his daughter.

“What’s a Rameumptom, Daddy?”

“Well, the Book of Mormon says it was a place where the Zoramites stood to worship and pray.”

“But my Primary teacher said it was a tower that evil people used.”

“I can see how someone could think that. The Book of Mormon says it was a place for standing which was high above the head’ and only one person at atime could go up there.”

“Was it like the speaker’s stand in the church?”

“A speaker’s stand? You mean a pulpit? Yes, I suppose it was. In fact, the word ‘Rameumptom’ means ‘the holy stand.'”

“What’s so evil about a holy stand, Daddy?”

“Well, it wasn’t the stand that was evil. It was how it was used. The people gathered there in their synagogue. . .”

“What’s a synagogue?”

“Just a different word for chapel or church, honey.”

“Oh.”

“They’d gather in their synagogue one day a week.”

“Which day, Daddy?”

“I don’t know, honey. It just says ‘one day,’ and they called it ‘the day of the Lord.'”

“It must have been Sunday.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because Sunday is the Lord’s day.”

“Well, maybe it was. . . Anyway, they’d gather there and whoever wanted to worship would go and stand on the top of the Rameumptom.”

“Could anyone go up there?”

“Well, no, that was part of the problem. Apparently, they had to wear the right clothes. . . ”

“You mean like us when we wear Sunday clothes, Daddy?”

“Well, not exactly, but in a way, yes, I suppose. Some of us might have a hard time accepting certain kinds of clothes or people in sacrament meeting. But we wear our Sunday clothes to help us be reverent, don’t we?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“So anyway, where was I?”

“They went to the top of the Rameumptom. . .”

“Yes, they would go up and worship God by thanking him for making them so special.”

“Were they bearing their testimonies?”

“Well, uh, I guess maybe they were in a way, but they weren’t true testimonies.”

“How come?”

“Because they were too proud.”

“What do you mean ‘proud,’ Daddy?”

“Well, they would talk about how they were ‘a chosen and holy people.'”

“My Primary teacher said Mormons are the chosen people and we’re a special generation.”

“Yes, honey, but that’s different.”

“How?”

“Because we are.”

“Oh.”

“Besides they were very, very proud about how much better they were than everyone else, because they didn’t believe the ‘foolish traditions’ of their neighbors.”

“What does that mean, Daddy?”

“It means that they believed everyone else was wrong and they alone were right.”

“Isn’t that what we believe?”

“But it’s different.”

“How?”

“Because we are right, honey.”

“Oh.”

“Everyone would stand and say the same thing. . .”

“That sounds like testimony meeting to me.”

“Don’t be irreverent.”

“Sorry.”

“Then after it was all over, they would go home and never speak about God until the next day of the Lord when they’d gather at the holy stand again.”

“Isn’t that like us, Daddy?”

“No honey, we have Family Home Evening.”

“Oh.”

BoM Lesson 17 (Limhi)

“A Seer . . . Becometh a Great Benefit to His Fellow Beings”

Mosiah 7–11

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To point out that prophets are of no real benefit to humanity.

Reading

For this lesson, there’s a subplot. We’re in the city of Zarahemla. Zarahemla was a bustling metropolis teeming with people, which somehow left no traces for modern archaeologists to find. Which is strange, because Joseph Smith told them where it was: Guatemala.

View post on imgur.com

Anyway, some years previous, some of the Nephites left Z-town to find the land of Nephi. Ammon heads up an expedition to find them, and runs across Limhi and his people. Limhi’s problem is that his people are enslaved by the Lamanites.

Now how did they come to be enslaved? Simple. God allowed it because they killed someone (and that someone turned out to be Abinadai).

Mosiah 7:25 For if this people had not fallen into transgression the Lord would not have suffered that this great evil should come upon them. But behold, they would not hearken unto his words; but there arose contentions among them, even so much that they did shed blood among themselves.
7:26 And a prophet of the Lord have they slain; yea, a chosen man of God, who told them of their wickedness and abominations, and prophesied of many things which are to come, yea, even the coming of Christ.
7:27 And because he said unto them that Christ was the God, the Father of all things, and said that he should take upon him the image of man, and it should be the image after which man was created in the beginning; or in other words, he said that man was created after the image of God, and that God should come down among the children of men, and take upon him flesh and blood, and go forth upon the face of the earth —
7:28 And now, because he said this, they did put him to death; and many more things did they do which brought down the wrath of God upon them. Therefore, who wondereth that they are in bondage, and that they are smitten with sore afflictions?

Okay, killing someone is bad, even if it is a trinitarian. But there’s something revealing in this passage.

Mosiah 7:29 For behold, the Lord hath said: I will not succor my people in the day of their transgression; but I will hedge up their ways that they prosper not; and their doings shall be as a stumbling block before them.

Let’s think about this. God’s a big guy; he’s bigger and smarter and stronger than those puny humans whose worship he demands. But if he doesn’t get it, he’s going to subject them to suffering, slavery, and affliction. What kind of being is this?

But there’s more: He didn’t just afflict them for their transgressions — he also put them through a famine for being “slow to remember” him.

Mosiah 9:3 And yet, I being over-zealous to inherit the land of our fathers, collected as many as were desirous to go up to possess the land, and started again on our journey into the wilderness to go up to the land; but we were smitten with famine and sore afflictions; for we were slow to remember the Lord our God.

It’s like you’ve got to focus your attention on him all the time. What a demanding narcissist! (I was going to say attention whore, but I realised that I didn’t want to demean sex workers by comparing them to God.)

Main ideas for this lesson

Prophets, seers, and revelators

Limhi has a problem: He has these gold plates — everyone did back then — and he needs them to be translated.

Mosiah 8:12 And I say unto thee again: Knowest thou of any one that can translate? For I am desirous that these records should be translated into our language; for, perhaps, they will give us a knowledge of a remnant of the people who have been destroyed, from whence these records came; or, perhaps, they will give us a knowledge of this very people who have been destroyed; and I am desirous to know the cause of their destruction.

Then there’s a bit of back-and-forth where Ammon and Limhi try to figure out who outranks whom in God’s hierarchy. Just the kind of thing enquiring minds want to know!

Mosiah 8:13 Now Ammon said unto him: I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer.
8:14 And behold, the king of the people who are in the land of Zarahemla is the man that is commanded to do these things, and who has this high gift from God.
8:15 And the king said that a seer is greater than a prophet.
8:16 And Ammon said that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God.
8:17 But a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known.
8:18 Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings.

Glad they sorted that out.

So, given that prophets / seers can translate documents, how have prophets done at this job?

Since Joseph Smith, the translation history has been, shall we say, scarce. And that’s funny, because Joseph Smith was an avid translator. And by translate, I mean ‘make stuff up’. You couldn’t wave an ancient papyrus under his nose without him attempting to come up with a translation.

Take the Kinderhook plates. They were fakes, but Smith didn’t seem to recognise that. He offered a translation anyway.

kinderhook

And then there’s the Book of Abraham.

Back in 1835, Smith declared that some ancient documents that had fallen into his possession were written by none other than Abraham himself, and he produced a translation. Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian, while published until 1832, wasn’t well-known, and it would have been difficult for anyone to catch Smith out on his inventions.

However, we know now the contents of the papyri, which turned out to be ordinary funerary documents. Smith’s supposed translation turned out to be wrong on everything.

2a5sban

Imagine how amazing that would be if God had provided a correct translation. What a stunning confirmation of Smith’s prophetic powers! But no.

Enough about translation. How about seeing the future? Even here, church leaders get it wrong.

The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual says:

“[Many years ago] the Brethren warned us of the disintegration of the family and told us to prepare. . . . “

I suppose they’re talking about The Family: A Proclamation to the World. It says:

“Further, we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.”

Many things could be described as “the disintegration of the family”, but subsequent LDS Church rhetoric would strongly suggest that we’re talking about gay marriage.

Since the publication of the Proclamation, gay marriage has become the law of the land in many countries. So are they suffering “the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets”?

Not quite. They’re actually doing quite well. Many are on this year’s list of World Happiness Report.

gmhttp://worldhappiness.report
http://time.com/3937766/us-supreme-court-countries-same-sex-gay-marriage-legal/

Say what you want about correlation and causation, but we don’t even need to go there. The fact that the most “troubled” nations (in LDS terms) are doing quite well is enough to defeat the predictions of prophets (ancient and modern) that the “disintegration of the family” causes calamities.

And let’s just make a point here:

The world’s happiest countries are also the world’s least religious countries according to a new report released by the World Happiness Index.

Science Alert reports that every year, the World Happiness Index surveys numerous people from various countries around the world in search of, as the name implies, which country has the happiest population. This year’s winner is Denmark, followed closely by Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway. The US ranked 13th.

The report shows that the world’s happiest countries are also the world’s least religious countries. The happiest countries also tend to be fairly homogeneous nations with strong social safety nets.

What else did prophets fail to foresee? Well, I don’t think they foresaw the slowdown of conversion rates.

RNS: What do you make of the 2015 Statistical Report which shows a slowing rate of LDS growth?

Martinich: Annual membership growth has steadily declined in the last 25 years. It used to be 4-5% a year, and now it’s only 1.7%. I don’t think it will decrease much more than to 1.5%, though.

This was supposed to be the rock that rolled out of the mountain to fill the whole earth. And instead it’s like this slinky.

slinky-fail-o

So let’s get real here. A prophet — seer, what have you — is not “a great benefit to his fellow beings”. He’s a parasite who teaches wrong things, creates nothing useful, and bills people 10% for the pleasure.

Additional lesson ideas

Things that didn’t exist

This reading contains a lot of things that simply didn’t exist in this place at that time.

Swords and cimeters

Mosiah 9:16 And it came to pass that I did arm them with bows, and with arrows, with swords, and with cimeters and with clubs, and with slings, and with all manner of weapons which we could invent, and I and my people did go forth against the Lamanites to battle.

No swords or cimiters dating from this era have been found.

Apologists like to say that swords didn’t have to be metal. They could have been obsidian or wood. But obsidian and wood don’t rust, do they?

Mosiah 8:9 And for a testimony that the things that they had said are true they have brought twenty-four plates which are filled with engravings, and they are of pure gold.
8:10 And behold, also, they have brought breastplates, which are large, and they are of brass and of copper, and are perfectly sound.
8:11 And again, they have brought swords, the hilts thereof have perished, and the blades thereof were cankered with rust; and there is no one in the land that is able to interpret the language or the engravings that are on the plates. Therefore I said unto thee: Canst thou translate?

Plants

Mosiah 9:9 And we began to till the ground, yea, even with all manner of seeds, with seeds of corn, and of wheat, and of barley, and with neas, and with sheum, and with seeds of all manner of fruits; and we did begin to multiply and prosper in the land.

Wheat and barley did not exist in the Americas at this time. It’s as though Joseph Smith (or whoever) didn’t bother to do any research, and just threw in the names of things he was familiar with — along with some made-up words.

Ziff

Mosiah 11:8 And it came to pass that king Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper;

I threw this one in because I like saying ziff. Let’s hear it for neologisms!

BoM Lesson 6 (Free to choose)

“Free to Choose Liberty and Eternal Life”

2 Nephi 1–2

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage readers to use agency

Reading

This reading is an exploration into Lehi’s discourse on agency. Agency — the ability to think and act — is a complex topic… that gets completely subverted by Lehi and the lesson manual. And that makes sense for the LDS Church.

It wants people who will work tirelessly… in ways that benefit the organisation.

It declares obedience “the first law of heaven”, but still wants you to be an agent… as long as you only use your agency to obey.

It wants you to investigate the truthfulness of the Church… as long as you decide that it’s true.

As my uncle Richard used to say in the BYU religion classes he taught, “God gave us agency to see if we’d give it right back.” Which is terribly Mormon, isn’t it?

And that’s why the centrepiece of the lesson — and its title — is a very one-sided view of agency.

2 Nephi 2:27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

Got that? You can choose

  • liberty and eternal life, or
  • captivity and death.

Wow, when you put it that way, that really makes the choice clear! It’s almost like you’re asking me to choose between cake, or death.

Whoops, there’s a flag down on the play.

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Yep, it’s a false dichotomy. The church would love to paint itself as the bringer of life and liberty — so that leaving the church is death — but in reality there are a lot of other choices. Life outside the church can be messy sometimes; choosing your own course can be messy sometimes. But it can also be good, moral, and fulfilling.

This is news to many of us who grew up in the church. We told each other over and over again that we didn’t know what we’d do without the church; we’d probably be in jail or dead. Many of us weren’t free. We were indoctrinated as children.

We were carefully led from program to program, from age bracket to age bracket, from Primary to Young Men/Women’s. Then to a mission — too many of us were getting away, so they lowered the age limit to prevent that first year of uni. Then we were encouraged to get married young, to someone we scarcely knew.

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That’s because married people with kids are easy to control.

There we went, from bubble to bubble, from investment to investment, until the years of indoctrination had taken effect.

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I want to say: They wanted to make us miserable like they were. But maybe that’s unfair. Were they unhappy? Some were. Some thought the church was just great. That was the thing: the church didn’t care if we were miserable or not, as long as we stayed in.

So are you free in the church? Yes, you’re free, but it’s the kind of free where you’re in the temple for the first time. There’s a bit where they tell you that if you want to go, you’re free to go without taking on all the promises and covenants. But they don’t tell you what the they are. There you are, ready to make an eternal commitment, but you don’t know what it is yet. The transparency and informed consent are severely lacking.

Thankfully, more and more of us are breaking free and learning to use our own agency for real.

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There’s another idea introduced in this reading.

2 Nephi 1:20 And he hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.

Ask: What kind of parent abandons their children if they are disobedient?
Answer: A parent with conditional love.

Main ideas for this lesson

Empty continent

The Book of Mormon has a major problem, which I call “The Incredible Vanishing Lehites”. Lehi and his family are supposed to have come to the New World, proliferated to truly exponential levels, and built a huge civilisaton. Surely a group of this size would have left some evidence of their existence, either from archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, genetics, or any other way. Yet we never find anything.

The apologists’ answer is that the Lehite group was quickly subsumed into a large local population… that Nephi never mentions.

The reason Nephi never mentions running into anyone else is that the Book of Mormon holds that no one else was there on the continent. We’ll be coming back to this idea a few times during our study, but here’s the first indication.

2 Nephi 1:6 Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord.
1:7 Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever.
1:8 And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance.
1:9 Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever.

This passage says:

  • No one would come into the land unless God brought them
  • Knowledge of the land was being withheld from others
  • If people from Jerusalem who moved there were good, they’d prosper
  • These people (from Jerusalem) would have the land all to themselves.

That’s really kind of it, isn’t it? No one else was there.

There may be some wiggle-room in the wording, language being what it is. I don’t think any passage in the Book of Mormon (or anywhere else) is so airtight that someone couldn’t wedge in a semantic crowbar and open a crack of ambiguity. But I think this passage makes it clear that whoever wrote the Book of Mormon wrote the American continent as a wilderness. I don’t think anyone could make the opposite case — that the place had a pre-existing population — because the Book of Mormon just never says anything to that effect.

Again, this is a huge problem for the Book of Mormon because there’s just no trace of these people.

Opposition in all things

Lehi offers this tidbit of wisdom:

2 Nephi 2:11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

Well, I guess that makes sense, kind of. Salty and sweet and all that.

But that’s not the intersting bit. What’s interesting is how the author ties it into a discussion about the existence of God.

2 Nephi 2:10 And because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God; wherefore, they stand in the presence of him to be judged of him according to the truth and holiness which is in him. Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement
2:11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
2:12 Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.
2:13 And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away.

I just want to focus on this last verse, because it’s a really terrible justification for theism.

Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement —

God has to punish people in order for justice to happen? Why did God have to create people if he knew in advance that he was going to punish them for eternity? That’s not just.

And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin.

I do say there’s no sin, if by “sin” you mean “actions that God doesn’t like”. God doesn’t exist, and sin is a made-up concept.

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If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness.

Wrong again! Many people do good actions, without believing in sin.

And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness.

Lehi’s really getting into ‘Talk Like a Pirate Day’. Arrr.

And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God.

God can’t exist without misery or punishment. Got it.

And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away.

Whoops! That might have been valid in the 1830s, but now we have a much better idea of how our universe was formed. No god was involved in the making of this video.

People tell me science and religion are compatible, but this scripture tells me the opposite. As Jerry Coyne points out in his book Faith Versus Fact,

Science and religion… are competitors in the business of finding out what is true about our universe. In this goal, religion has failed miserably, for its tools for discerning “truth” are useless. These ideas are incompatible in the same way, and in the same sense, that rationality is incompatible with irrationality. (p. xvi)

Adam

Lehi continues:

2 Nephi 2:22 And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.
2:23 And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.
2:24 But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.
2:25 Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
2:26 And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.

I’ve mentioned before that I like to debate evangelists. When I ask them why God had to get his son killed to forgive us, you know what thy do? They invariably take it back to Adam and Eve. And there’s a reason why they do this. Without a literal Adam and Eve, the gospel story falls apart.

So I tell them: There was never an Adam or Eve. They are fictional characters.

  • And if there was no Adam or Eve, there was no Fall.
  • And if there was no Fall, there is no sin.
  • And if there is no sin, then there is no redemption necessary.
  • And if there is no redemption necessary, there is no need for a saviour.

Sorry, Jesus.

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Additional lesson ideas

Hamlet plagiarism?

People sometimes say that this verse…

2 Nephi 1:14 Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return; a few more days and I go the way of all the earth.

…looks a lot like Hamlet.

“That undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)

It’s a well-known quote, which I suppose the author of the Book of Mormon would have been familiar with. But it’s also the kind of turn of phrase that a writer might indulge in.

Do I think this rises to the level of plagiarism? Nnnah. But it does tell me that the Book of Mormon is a remix, and whoever wrote it had a lot of modern influences going on undr the hood.

I’m rating this one as “not a very serious criticism”. Change my view in comments!

BoM Lesson 5 (Building a Boat)

“Hearken to the Truth, and Give Heed unto It”

1 Nephi 16–22

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage readers to notice the implausibility of the Book of Mormon account, and to listen to truth and avoid becoming “past reason”.

Reading

One of the amazing yet frustrating things about being an ex-Mormon is that you look back at the stuff you used to believe and think, “How the hell did I believe this stuff?”

For me, that’s especially true of this lesson.

In this lesson, Lehi and his family are starting an eight-year sojourn in the wilderness of the Arabian Peninsula. Strangely, it’s the most well-provisioned wilderness anyone’s ever seen. There’s so much food and resources, you could build a ship out of them. Everything in this reading is simply bursting with implausibility, to the extent that I must have been stupid or blind to have granted it the least bit of credence.

But in retrospect, all the implausibility vanished away with one wave of the magic wand: God can do anything. In which case, God’s an idiot for doing things this way, making humans go through the motions for these impossible actions, when he could have thought of a more direct and less tedious way for people to do it, or just done it himself.

So here’s what’s in this reading.

  • Lehi and family travel to pick up Ishmael’s family. No concern for the wishes of the daughters is evinced. Or indeed, their names. Mormonism never misses an opportunity to tell women they don’t matter.

1 Nephi 16:7 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, took one of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also, my brethren took of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also Zoram took the eldest daughter of Ishmael to wife.

  • They find a Liahona, which is kind of like an iPad, but rounder and more steampunk.

1 Nephi 16:10 And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.

1 Nephi 16:28 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them.

This is why I love my iPad — I don’t have to believe in it for it to work.

  • The company takes seeds and provisions,

1 Nephi 16:11 And it came to pass that we did gather together whatsoever things we should carry into the wilderness, and all the remainder of our provisions which the Lord had given unto us; and we did take seed of every kind that we might carry into the wilderness.

  • and they travel for eight years.

1 Nephi 17:4 And we did sojourn for the space of many years, yea, even eight years in the wilderness.

I suppose the reason for all the wandering is that God is trying to figure out what to do with these people. Writer’s block.

  • Finally, God gets an idea: He commands Nephi to build a boat

1 Nephi 17:8 And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters.

  • His brothers murmur, but the Lord shocks them

1 Nephi 17:53 And it came to pass that the Lord said unto me: Stretch forth thine hand again unto thy brethren, and they shall not wither before thee, but I will shock them, saith the Lord, and this will I do, that they may know that I am the Lord their God.
17:54 And it came to pass that I stretched forth my hand unto my brethren, and they did not wither before me; but the Lord did shake them, even according to the word which he had spoken.

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  • They sail to the Promised land, but en route Nephi’s brothers become rude, and tie him up, probably because he’s so uptight and hates fun.

1 Nephi 18:9 And after we had been driven forth before the wind for the space of many days, behold, my brethren and the sons of Ishmael and also their wives began to make themselves merry, insomuch that they began to dance, and to sing, and to speak with much rudeness, yea, even that they did forget by what power they had been brought thither; yea, they were lifted up unto exceeding rudeness.

18:11 And it came to pass that Laman and Lemuel did take me and bind me with cords, and they did treat me with much harshness; nevertheless, the Lord did suffer it that he might show forth his power, unto the fulfilling of his word which he had spoken concerning the wicked.

One theme that keeps coming up throughout the Book of Mormon is that apostates are filled with some kind of murderous desire.

Ask: Now that you’re an ex-Mormon, which of the following do you want to do?

a) Tie people up
b) Kill them
c) Hunt wild beasts
d) Become filthy and idolatrous
e) Debate people on the internet

If you said e), then you’re kind of normal. Be prepared to be accused of a) through d), though.

  • Upon their arrival in the Promised Land (USA! USA!), they put their seeds into the earth, and they grow

1 Nephi 18:24 And it came to pass that we did begin to till the earth, and we began to plant seeds; yea, we did put all our seeds into the earth, which we had brought from the land of Jerusalem. And it came to pass that they did grow exceedingly; wherefore, we were blessed in abundance.

No trace of Middle Eastern plants have been found from this time.

  • They find animals that didn’t exist, and none that do

1 Nephi 18:25 And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, that there were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, which were for the use of men. And we did find all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper.

These animals were not in the Americas at this time.

Now in church, they use to make a big deal out of ancient horses and mastodons caught in the La Brea tar pits. Sorry, guys, but that was the wrong time — about 10,000 years too early.

These are anachronisms — things in the wrong time.

Richard Packham gives a wonderful example of why anachronisms ought to put paid to the Book of Mormon’s claims of authenticity.

One of the most important tests for uncovering an allegedly ancient text that is really a product of later times is the presence of anachronisms, that is, things that are inappropriate to the time in which the work supposedly was written. It is a very straightforward and relatively common-sense test.

For example: Suppose I show you a small book that says on its cover: “Journal of Gen’l George Washington.” You look through the book and at first reading it does, indeed, appear to be the journal of a period in the life of George Washington. What a treasure! It sounds authentic. Its language is typical of the late 18th century, when Washington lived. It contains material hitherto unknown to historians, and yet not contradictory to what is known. I explain to you that it is a faithful typewritten copy of a handwritten book that was found among my grandfather’s belongings.

As you read it, however, you come across this sentence: “This aft’noon rec’d an urgent wire, took the rr train to Philadelphia, arr’d toward evening, met by M. Adams at the sta.”

What is your reaction? Are you suspicious? You know that the railroad did not exist in Washington’s day, nor did the term “rr train” or “sta[tion]” as a place where one would meet a “rr train.” Nor was a message called a “wire”, since that term came into use only with the invention of the telegraph in the next century. These are anachronisms, and immediately mark the text as not from the times of Washington.

What explanation could I give you that would persuade you to accept this text as genuine? I could probably try to defend the authenticity of my text. I could suggest that “rr train” was probably a special shorthand Washington was using for “stagecoach” (even though there is no evidence of such a use in any genuine Washington writings, or in any other writings from the time). A similar argument might be made for “wire” for a message. But to any scholar, and to any ordinary person using common sense and a rudimentary knowledge of history, this text is a clumsy fraud.

Would you change your mind if I listed all the things that are authentic in the text, or that sound believable or possible? No, I would hope not.

Would you change your mind if I argued that, after all, it was only two little anachronisms? No, I would hope not. Even only one anachronism – unless it can be conclusively shown to be a later insertion by someone else (a corruption of the original text) – is enough to condemn a text as not authentic.

Would you change your mind if I confided to you that the journal had been given to my grandfather by an angel of God, and that the angel had told him that it was authentic? I suppose to some people that would make a difference, but only the very, very gullible.

The examples given above are of anachronistic objects. A linguistic anachronism is the use of a word which actually did not come into use until much later than the alleged date of the document. For example, if we found in the purported journal of Washington the expression “fifth column” (meaning undercover sabotage agents), we would know that the journal is not authentic, since that expression was coined and first used during the Spanish Civil War in the twentieth century.

If this biography of George Washington says, “We’ve got our iPods charged, and we’re ready to rock and roll,” then thats it. It’s fake. We’re done. It doesn’t matter if it gets a few other things right.

Apologists try to explain their way around anachronisms by using their favourite trick: redefining words. A cow might have been a bison. An ox might have been a mastodon. Anything might have been anything other than what the word means.

duffy_horse1It would have been simple for Nephi to say, “We found a bunch of weird freaking animals that we’d never seen before.” But no.

Let’s focus on horses for a second. There’s no evidence of any horses native to the Americas during the time of Lehi’s fictional family. They died out 11,000 years ago, and were reintroduced by the Spanish. (Same for goats.)

Rather hilariously, Robert Bennett of FARMS suggested that the word horse actually referred to the tapir.

It is also possible that some Book of Mormon peoples coming from the Old World may have decided to call some New World animal species a “horse” or an “ass.” This practice, known as “loanshift” or “loan-extension,” is well known to historians and anthropologists who study cross-cultural contact. For example, when the Greeks first visited the Nile in Egypt, they encountered a large animal they had never seen before and gave it the name hippopotamus, meaning “horse of the river.” When the Roman armies first encountered the elephant, they called it Lucca bos, a “Lucanian cow.” In the New World the Spanish called Mesoamerican jaguars leones, “lions,” or tigres, “tigers.”

Similarly, members of Lehi’s family may have applied loanwords to certain animal species that they encountered for the first time in the New World, such as the Mesoamerican tapir. While some species of tapir are rather small, the Mesoamerican variety (tapiris bairdii) can grow to be nearly six and a half feet in length and can weigh more than six hundred pounds. Many zoologists and anthropologists have compared the tapir’s features to those of a horse or a donkey.

Yes, it’s one of these.

tapir

Lamanites rode these noble steeds across the dusty plains.

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As a result, the tapir has become the unofficial mascot of the ex-Mormon movement.

  • Nephi copies a lot of Isaiah.

1 Nephi 19:23 And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.

He even copies Deutero-Isaiah, who hadn’t written anything by the time Lehi was supposed to have left. Whoops — another anachronism.

It doesn’t end with Isaiah. Nephi copies a lot of things that hadn’t been written yet. Check this page from the Skeptic’s Annotated Book of Mormon, and see how the author quoted everyone from Malachi to Revelation.

Main ideas for this lesson

Impossible things

I want to focus on two impossible things that Nephi and family did:

  • building an enormous ship
  • making a long sea journey
Building a ship

To build anything that could be called a “ship” would be impossible to build for people living in anything that could be called a “wilderness”. Ship building is something that took entire communities working together to bring about, with a complex array of goods, materials, and labor.

I’ve got to ask you to take the time and listen to this episode of John Larsen’s Mormon Expression podcast: How to Build a Transoceanic Vessel. Not only is it hilarious, it’s devastating.

The short version: Nephi would have had to extract iron ore from somewhere with his bare hands, and then smelted tools. He would have had to bring together entire forests of high-grade wood, loomed cloth to make sails, and gotten together an array of provisions of Noachian proportions. Just assembling the raw materials would have required Herculean effort from the tiny group (who would have been busy tending children and… you know… rebelling), to say nothing of the time it would have taken to build the actual ship. It’s not just a bit off – it’s all screamingly wrong. As Randy says: “It’s Gilligan’s Island Level ridiculousness.”

Joseph Smith, or the author of the Book of Mormon, knew dick-all about ship building, which is probably why he covers the entire project in three verses, in as little detail as possible.

1 Nephi 18:1 And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.
18:2 Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men.
18:3 And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things.
18:4 And it came to pass that after I had finished the ship, according to the word of the Lord, my brethren beheld that it was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine; wherefore, they did humble themselves again before the Lord.

Lehi’s path

Have you ever thought about the family’s putative path on a map? I hadn’t.

Their starting point would have been somewhere on the Arabian peninsula, according to LDS sources.

ensignlp.nfo-o-3346

And they would have had to get to somewhere on the American continent.

Now here’s a graphic from the wonderful series “Brutally Honest Mormon Coloring Pages (Part 5)” by gileriodekel.

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Ask: Does this look like a plausible path for someone around 600 BCE? Take all the time you need.

They would have had to either sail around the Horn of Africa (in the near-Antarctic cold), or navigate through Indonesia. Either way, that’s a long freaking path.

I spent nearly forty years in the church, and as much as I read the Book of Mormon and told others about it, I’d never thought about the path. Maybe it was my poor geography or my thoughtlessness, but when I saw that map this week, I stared at it for five minutes before tossing the laptop aside and wondering again: How did I ever belive this rubbish‽

Maybe it’s that the bullshit goes so deep and spreads so wide that it’s impossible to consider all the BS, item by item. Yet there it is.

Additional lesson ideas

600 BCE?

We’ve already seen a problem with the chronology and Hezekiah.

1 Nephi 19:8 And behold he cometh, according to the words of the angel, in six hundred years from the time my father left Jerusalem.

The church pegs Lehi’s departure at 600 BCE because of this verse, but if there’s one year Jesus couldn’t have been born, it’s the year 1, according to the Bible chronology. Short version: Jesus would have been about 2 years old when Herod put the hit out on him, and Herod is known to have did in the year corresponding to 4 BCE. That makes the Book of Mormon chronology about 6 years out.

This book’s a mess.

Nahom

Now here’s an apologetic item. The Book of Mormon mentions a place called Nahom.

1 Nephi 16:34 And it came to pass that Ishmael died, and was buried in the place which was called Nahom.

And what do you know: in the Arabian Peninsula, alters have been found with an inscription that corresponds to NHM. Clearly a win for Book of Mormon archaeology!

Nahom-altars.

Well, maybe not. It’s NHM, not Nahom — vowels not typically written in Semitic languages. So NHM could be Noham, Nihum, Nahem, or any other combination. It could have been Nahum, which is the name of an Old Testament book, and which Joseph Smith could have copied.

And remember also that, with only 30-odd consonants in use for most languages, it’s not implausible for any combination to pop up somewhere. If someone had found BTF or BNT or BNF on an inscription somewhere, they’d be claiming a match for Bountiful. SHML could be a hit for Ishmael, even though it might have been used to mean something else. And the same could happen for any one of the place names and character names in this part of the story. NHM is firmly within the realm of linguistic coincidence.

Check out these pages for more criticism of the tenuous Nahom connection.

A side question: If Nephi and co. gave the place that name, how would anyone know it, and carry the name on? On the other hand, if the place already had that name, then when did Nephi and co. meet up with them? They never mention seeing anyone else. We’ll see this problem again — if there were other people around, Nephi sure is thoughtless in not mentioning them.

Let’s put this into perspective: If the Book of Mormon were true, there should be loads of evidence for it on multiple continents. Instead, what do we get? A group of three consonants, that could be a coincidence. This is literally the best they have.

And again, if something turns out right, it doesn’t help the case for the Book of Mormon. We’d still have to explain away all of the linguistic, historical, and archaeological anachronisms that turned out wrong.

Past reason

Finally, here’s a bit from the LDS lesson manual about being “past feeling”.

• Nephi told Laman and Lemuel that they “were past feeling, that [they] could not feel [the Lord’s] words” (1 Nephi 17:45). What does it mean to feel the words of the Lord? (See the quotation below.) What causes people to become “past feeling”? How can we prepare ourselves to feel the words of the Lord?

I would argue that a more serious condition would be that of being past reason, where a person is no longer able to be convinced by evidence and logic, since they’ve forsworn its use.

Robert Kirby of the Salt Lake Tribune has written a wonderful article called “Kirby: Could you handle the truth about your religion?” He asks:

What if you could learn whether the religion you follow is true simply by pushing a button?

No more need for faith. Now you could actually know instead of just believing that you do. Would you push the button? Even if knowing the truth might make you really unhappy?

Are you kidding? I’d be scrambling to push that button. If I’m wrong, I want to know it.

But other people aren’t so keen. Kirby continues:

The way I see it, your answer to the button question depends on where you are in the truth-seeking process.

First is that you want to know the truth badly enough to push the button regardless of which answer comes up. Truth is more important to you than personal comfort.

Second, you’re the kind of person not willing to place what you believe in jeopardy. Ignorance is so blissful that you stay as far away as possible from the truth button lest your emotional security be undone accidentally.

Finally — and most stupidly — are the people who wouldn’t push the button because they already “know” their religion is true.

There’s no relating to the last group of people, who believe their personal faith is the final word, so there’s no need to investigate further.

Kirby’s piece actually makes me wonder if he’s on the way to the Land of ex-Mormonia. I’ve often asked that question to religious people, “If your religion is wrong, would you want to know?” And if their answer is no, then there’s not really a point, is there? They’d rather keep being wrong their whole lives. They’re past reason, past curiosity, past thinking.

We need to let ourselves go along with reason, logic, and evidence. It doesn’t work otherwise.

NT Lesson 31 (Thessalonians)

“And So Were the Churches Established in the Faith”

Acts 15:36–18:22; 1 and 2 Thessalonians

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage readers to question fearlessly.

Reading

We’re starting to get into Paul’s epistles in this lesson. And there’s some overlap with Paul’s missionary journeys. Those must have been a hoot!

Here’s one where Paul and Barnabas can’t agree on who to take along with them, and — Oh, no! — Barnabas breaks Rule 72!

Acts 15:36 And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the LORD, and see how they do.
15:37 And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark.
15:38 But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.
15:39 And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus;

In LDS missions, this is referred to as the first “companionship inventory”.

Then Paul performed an operation on another companion, Timotheus.

Acts 16:1 Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and, behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed; but his father was a Greek:
16:2 Which was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium.
16:3 Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek.

This raises all kinds of questions for me.

  • Was it kind of awkward for Paul to circumcise his companion?
  • Why did Paul feel the need to do that, when the circumcision question had already been settled in the last lesson?
  • This is just an idea here, but couldn’t Paul have simply claimed that Timotheus had been circumcised? Would anyone have tried to check?

I love this next bit. Paul got invited to preach to some Greeks.

Does anyone remember Gene Ray, the Time Cube guy? His website was an especially aggressive brand of crazypants. (Poor guy.) Alas, the Time Cube site is no longer operative, but there was a time where students at MIT invited Gene Ray to a debate. I imagine that was kind of what the Greeks had in mind when they invited Paul.

Acts 17:18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.
17:19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?
17:20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.
17:21 (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
17:22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.

Seriously? Says the purveyor of Christianity? Maybe he should have been better versed in thinking things through.

Main ideas for this lesson

Christians and the law

Christians, believing as they do in a divine lawgiver, have always had a troubled relationship with human law. In recent weeks, we’ve all become aware of one Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to do her job. The US Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was legal in all fifty states, and yet Davis refused to marry gay couples because of her “sincerely-held religious belief” that she knew what God wanted. As a result, she went to jail, but has since been released (to much fanfare from other Christians).

Ask: To what extent is it justifiable for someone to disobey laws they disagree with?

Civil disobedience — in which someone publicly disobeys laws, and then accepts the consequences — can be a dynamic way to protest unjust laws. Davis’s case is quite the reverse, however; she was protesting equal treatment under the law. She (along with the Christian Right) would like to cast her actions as obeying her conscience, but she was really attempting to force others to obey her religious rules. In a secular society where everyone’s religious belief gets treated on equal terms, that’s not okay. She’s trying to keep her job, and refuse to do it, too. This is playing it both ways.

I’m pretty sure that Davis was delighted to go to jail. It plays into a “poor persecuted Christians” narrative that they just love. Christians are a majority, but feeling like the number two dog pumps a bit of adrenaline into Christianity. Keeps it from getting flabby.

And scriptures like this are where they get it from.

Acts 16:22 And the multitude rose up together against them: and the magistrates rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them.
16:23 And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely:
16:24 Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.
16:25 And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.
16:26 And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.

I suspect that from her cell, Davis must have been thinking about Paul, and waiting for the jail walls to tumble. But they never do, almost like God is imaginary or something.

The Second Coming: Coming soon!

At this point, Christians were getting a bit antsy for the Second Coming. Possibly they’d heard the stories of how Jesus said it was going to happen within the lifetimes of those who were still alive. But now in 52–3 CE, the Christian population was seriously ageing, and no doubt they were starting to wonder what was going on. Quick, Paul! Invent a way of explaining the delay!

Here’s how he hoses down the panic among the Thessalonians.

Idea 1: We already told you that you were going to have to wait.

1 Thessalonians 1:9 For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God;
1:10 And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.

Idea 2: Keep telling each other how great it’s going to be! You’re gonna float up to heaven!

1 Thessalonians 4:16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
4:17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
4:18 Wherefore comfort one another with these words.

Idea 3: I can’t tell you exactly when it’s going to be, but it’s going to be when you don’t expect.

1 Thessalonians 5:1 But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you.
5:2 For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.

Idea 4: Everyone else who didn’t believe is going to be so screwed, but you’re going to get a special VIP meeting with Jesus!

2 Thessalonians 1:7 And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels,
1:8 In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ:
1:9 Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;
1:10 When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day.

Idea 5: Don’t worry; be happy.
Here’s a bit from the real lesson manual:

If you are using the video presentation “The Second Coming,” show it now. Briefly discuss Elder Packer’s and Elder Maxwell’s counsel about preparing for the Second Coming but not worrying about when it will happen.

Not worrying about when it will happen‽

I don’t know if they’ve actually read what happens in the book of Revelation, but it’s not the kind of thing you’d really want to be all sanguine about. God is going to kill billions of people with fire and hail. And yet, they’re like, eh, don’t worry too much.

How could they take that view? Is it because they teach that “if you are prepared, ye need not fear”? As long as you’re paying, praying, and obeying, you’ll be fine — too bad about those other bastards. You’ll be fine. This — along with the idea of getting to watch poor wretched sinners enduring an eternity of isolation from your own comfy spot in heaven — is just another example of how the capacity for compassion among gospel believers is profoundly and frighteningly depleted.

A couple of years after his first epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul is still having to hose the idea down.

2 Thessalonians 2:1 Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him,
2:2 That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.

Translation: “Calm down, you guys! Don’t even listen if you get a letter from us.” Which is a bit tricky, because this is a letter from us. Nobody said this stuff had to make sense.

The whole last-days idea is especially relevant today, when a whole heap of Mormons are listening to someone named Julie Rowe. She and her acolytes are teaching that the End is coming in September 2015.

Sales of emergency supplies increase in Utah as some speculate end of September brings ‘Doomsday’
SALT LAKE CITY — Catastrophe could strike by the end of this month. Yes, that’s right. Doomsday is scheduled for approximately September 28th, at least according to some in Utah.
A combination of a Blood Moon, the Hebrew calendar and a few other beliefs make the month of September look pretty bleak for state residents and unusually profitable for some businesses.

Well, they’re going to have to walk that back before long.

How dumb do you have to be before you fall for this stuff? I’m not that old, but I’ve lived through something like 42 apocalypses already. How could people not have heard of at least a few of these? Are their skeptical skills entirely void?

I think I know the answer.

Activity for those who are browsing their phone during church: Check this site — it tells you how many apocalypses you’ve lived through.

Fifty-seven! I must be more durable than I’d thought.

Without deceit or trickery

From the real lesson manual

Have class members read 1 Thessalonians 2:2–3. Point out that Paul said the gospel should be taught with boldness and without deceit or trickery. Elder James E. Talmage added that we should boldly teach the truth without criticizing or attacking other people’s beliefs.

These are noble ideas. Does the church follow them?

Ask: Does the church teach without deceit or trickery?

  • When someone taks the missionary lessons, they are taught a bit of what they’re in for. But much is left out. Are investigators taught about
  • temple garments?
  • polygamy (including its expected return in the last days)?
  • the full story of Joseph Smith’s sexual abuse of minors?
  • the full story of Joseph Smith’s history of treasure-seeking?

Are missionaries encouraged to teach the full story? With rare exceptions, missionaries themselves do not even know the full story. Which is why we’ll never see door approaches like this:

Without all the information, investigators can’t make an informed decision. They’re encouraged to join anyway. Church members justify these lies of omission by saying “milk before meat”, baptising them anyway, and then hoping that the investment fallacy kicks in by the time they find out the whole story. This is deception.

But then the question of honesty in evangelism is kind of moot anyway. Paul notes that God himself causes people to believe lies. So that they can be damned.

2 Thessalonians 2:7 For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.
2:8 And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming:
2:9 Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders,
2:10 And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.
2:11 And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:
2:12 That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
2:13 But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth:

Thanks, God!

Ask: Does the church criticise or attack other beliefs?

Not only did Joseph Smith teach that God told him all other religions were corrupt, but later leaders continued this teaching.

John Taylor said . . .
We talk about Christianity, but it is a perfect pack of nonsens . . . Myself and hundreds of the Elders around me have seen its pomp, parade, and glory; and what is it? It is a sounding brass and a tinkling symbol; it is as corrupt as hell; and the Devil could not invent a better engine to spread his work than the Christianity of the nineteenth century,” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 6, 1858, p. 167).

Not only that, but theres also been a heap of confused teaching about “the great and abominable church”.

1 Nephi 14:10 And he said unto me: Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.

The church has always been less than forthcoming in teaching its history, and it is critical of other faiths. It does not obey its own teaching on this issue.

Additional lesson ideas

There are a few other things we get from Thessalonians.

Ostracism

I’m glad that Mormons don’t ostracise their ex-members — as a matter of policy, that is. (In practice, I never see my LDS friends anymore.)

If Mormons wanted to practice ostracism as a method of information control, they would have to look no farther than these scriptures:

2 Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.
2 Thessalonians 3:14 If any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.

Wow, that started early! It seems ex-members have always been trouble. And it makes sense that we’re dangerous; we know about the organisation, and we’re not afraid to say what we know.

Puritanism

Our world is facing a difficult situation. Technology helps us do more, but it also renders a lot of jobs redundant. As robots learn to do more in the way of manufacturing, building, and even driving, there will be fewer and fewer jobs for people. That might be all right in some ways — it’s no longer necessary for absolutely everyone to hold down a job for the system to function — but it does mean that a lot of people will be displaced and living in poverty.

Accordingly, the time will come when we need to figure out a new relationship with work. I like the idea of a guaranteed minimum income. Everyone gets enough money to live on, even if they do nothing. If they do choose to work, then they’ll make more. Parenting? Caring for someone who’s sick? Between jobs? You won’t be destitute. You won’t have to take a job you hate, just to live. And if we need teachers, nurses, and servers, we’re going to have to pay them properly, or else they won’t bother. (And people who take jobs as marketers, advertisers, and multi-level marketers when they don’t have to will be exposed for the soulless creeps that they are.)

That’s my idea, anyway, and there’s some evidence that it works.

Between 1974 and 1979, the Canadian government tested the idea of a basic income guarantee (BIG) across an entire town, giving people enough money to survive in a way that no other place in North America has before or since. For those four years—until the project was cancelled and its findings packed away—the town’s poorest residents were given monthly checks that supplemented what modest earnings they had and rewarded them for working more. And for that time, it seemed that the effects of poverty began to melt away. Doctor and hospital visits declined, mental health appeared to improve, and more teenagers completed high school.

But if this idea ever does get traction, we can expect some pushback from Christians, who will cite this scripture:

2 Thessalonians 3:10 For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.

In general, it’s good to work and not be lazy. In practice, there are some good reasons to change the way we think about work, and we need to realise that the idea of a job for everyone is no longer necessary, or indeed even possible.

Best Bible verse

And now I’d like to come to one of my favourite Bible verses.

1 Thessalonians 5:21 Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

The sense of prove here is to try. Try all the ideas out without fear, and if something is good — by which I would mean ‘verified by evidence’ — then hold onto it.

It was a major turning point for me when I realised that, if there were a god, and it were the god of truth, then he wouldn’t be concerned with me simply defending my preconceived ideas. He’d want me to know what was true and well-supported by evidence. I wouldn’t have to be afraid of running across some factual information that destroyed my belief. If a fact destroyed my belief, then that belief ought to be destroyed. I held to this thought by J. Reuben Clark:

Well, that was the beginning of the end for the church. Having lost the desire to defend the church, and having gained the desire to see it for what it was, I soon saw it for what it was: a vacuous, counterfactual system that lied to people and billed them for the pleasure. It damaged those who believed in it most.

No wonder the view of Boyd K. Packer came to prevail:

I’d like to encourage readers to learn about our world by fearless inquiry. Examine ideas ruthlessly, and keep the good ones. That’s a pretty compact summary of the scientific method.

NT Lesson 27 (Resurrection)

“He Is Not Here, for He Is Risen”

Matthew 28; Luke 24; John 20–21

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show contradictions in the resurrection story, and to encourage readers to seek evidence for extraordinary claims.

Reading

This lesson is about the pivotal event of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus. I say it’s pivotal because if it didn’t happen, then there’s no point to Christianity at all. And Paul says as much.

1 Corinthians 15:14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

This really came home to me when my father passed on. I realised that I was the grown-up now, and I had to decide how I was going to live. And if there was a life after this, or no life after this, I wanted to know it. It’s amazing how much you can learn when you don’t care about defending the story you’ve always lived by, and you just want to know if you’re right or wrong. Well, at this point, I wanted to know if I was right or wrong.

So for me, the crucial question became: Did the resurrection of Jesus happen?

And my answer: Of course not. Why would it? Don’t be a credulous nincompoop. People don’t just get up from being totally dead. When has that ever happened in all of human experience? Never. So if someone wants to convince me that it really happened, thry’re going to need better evidence than copies of documents. And as Sam Harris points out, that’s all we got.

Bible scholars agree that the first gospels were written decades after the life of Jesus. Decades.

And of course, we don’t have the original manuscripts. We have copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts which have thousands — literally thousands — of descrepancies between them, many of which show signs of later interpolation, which is to say that people added passages that then became part of the canon. There are whole books of the canon, like the book of Revelation, which for hundreds of years were not included because they were deemed false gospel. There are other whole books, like the Shepherd of Hermas, which you probably haven’t heard of, but for centuries it was considered part of the canon, and then was later jettisoned as false gospel.

Generations of Christians lived and died being guided by gospel that is now deemed both incomplete and mistaken. Think about that. This process, this all too human process of cobbling together the supposed authoritative word of god is a very precarious basis to assert the claims of Christianity. But the truth is, even if we had multiple contemporaneaus claims of the miracles of Jesus this would not be good enough. Because miracle stories abound even in the 21st century. The devotees of the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba ascribe all of the miracles of Jesus to him. He reads minds, he fortells the future, he heals, he raises the dead, he was born of a virgin. Sathya Sai Baba is not a fringe figure. You may not have heard of him, but they had a birthday party for him a few years ago and a million people showed up. There are vast numbers of people that think he is a living god.

So Christianity is predicated on the claim that miracle stories — exactly of the kind that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba — become especially credible when you place them in a pre-scientific religious context of the first century roman empire, decades after their supposed occurance, as attested to by copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek and largely discrepant manuscripts. We have Sathya Sai Baba’s miracle stories attested to by thousands upon thousands of living eye witnesses and they don’t even merit an hour on cable television. And, yet, you put a few miracle stories in an ancient book and half the people on Earth think it a legitimate project to organize their lives around. Does anyone else see a problem with that?

Actually, yes, I do.

Speaking of “largely discrepant manuscripts”, we’re going to see how the stories in the gospels are hopelessly confused as to the details of the resurrection. Here’s a helpful infographic.

This was God’s opportunity to report the facts of the case, and it resembles nothing more than a mishmash of human fabrication.

So how does Christianity paper over this? The surprising answer: By expecting you not to demand any evidence for its claims, and by telling you that you’ll be blessed if you believe without evidence. How about that?

Main ideas for this lesson

Rolling away the stone?

Let’s start at the beginning: In the morning, two Marys (and a Salome, if you believe Mark) were heading to the tomb.

Matthew 28:1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.

Mark 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

Other Mary: Why do I have to be ‘other Mary’?
Mary: You’re not married to Jesus.
Other Mary: Well, you’re not married to Jesus!
Mary: (silence)

I don’t know what they thought they were going to do; there was supposed to be a huge stone there. But then Matthew reports a second huge earthquake that no one else noticed, and an angel rolls away the stone.

Matthew 28:2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.

Already we have a fail. Round tomb stones weren’t really a thing at the time. They wouldn’t be popular until about 70 CE, which supports the idea that this was a later addition. Richard Carrier notes:

There is another reason to doubt the tomb burial that has come to my attention since I first wrote this review: the tomb blocking stone is treated as round in the Gospels, but that would not have been the case in the time of Jesus, yet it was often the case after 70 C.E., just when the gospels were being written. Amos Kloner, in “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” (Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, Sep/Oct 1999, pp. 23-29, 76), discusses the archaeological evidence of Jewish tomb burial practices in antiquity. He observes that “more than 98 percent of the Jewish tombs from this period, called the Second Temple period (c. first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), were closed with square blocking stones” (p. 23), and only four round stones are known prior to the Jewish War, all of them blocking entrances to elaborate tomb complexes of the extremely rich (such as the tomb complex of Herod the Great and his ancestors and descendants). However, “the Second Temple period…ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In later periods the situation changed, and round blocking stones became much more common” (p. 25).

Appearances

Jesus then appears to different people in contradictory and mutually exclusive ways. Rather than recount it, I refer to this portion of our infographic.

If that’s not enough for you, I have this PDF file from my good friend David Austin. (He should get a blog.) Click the image to download a copy for yourself.

Thomas and doubt

Jesus appears to the rest of the apostles. And since it’s John, notice the “fear of teh Jooz”. He’s always on about the Jews.

John 20:19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.

Good so far, except Thomas wasn’t there. And he won’t believe it until he sees it.

John 20:24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
20:25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

Good on him. He’s demanding the kind of evidence that’s required to support a claim. That’s what a person should do.

John 20:26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
20:27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
20:28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.

Thomas believes, but at least he’s doing it right. He wants evidence, he gets it, and he changes his mind.

But now here’s Jesus with the kicker.

John 20:29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Here we have it, folks. This is the one that I count as the worst verse in scripture. Jesus is saying that evidence is fine, but no evidence is just as good. Maybe even better.

By insisting that believing without evidence is somehow on a par with believing with evidence, Jesus takes the metric that rational people use to evaluate claims, and turns it on its head. If we all did this, there’s no limit to the mutually exclusive and contradictory claims we could believe. To accept this way of thinking is to abandon reason.

Imagine how irresponsible it is for a god to demand this. Here we are in our short lives, having to choose the right religion or philosophy or story among tens of thousands, and if you get it wrong, it’s no salvation for you. Those are serious consequences (which God has set out). A responsible parent would spell out the evidence for his gospel fairly clearly. God doesn’t do that. Instead, he expects you to pick one without adequate reasons, and hope you got it right. To be fair, he also is supposed to give out feelings, the nature of which can easily be misunderstood, and which are experienced by followers of all religions. Otherwise, good luck.

This theme of not needing evidence is often taken up by believers I’ve met. When I ask for evidence, they never provide it. Instead, they make excuses for why I shouldn’t expect evidence, or they tell me why I should accept substitutes for evidence (like feelings). Strangely, they don’t seem to see how this is an evasion of the responsibility to back up what they say.

Read this excerpt from The Ethics of Belief, written by William K. Clifford in 1877

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it — the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

Ask: How does the LDS Church encourage people to “avoid the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss” church doctrines?
Answers: By avoiding material that is not “inspiring”, and by labelling books and people who tell the truth about the church as “anti-Mormon”.

Ask: How is the refusing to confront doubts “one long sin against mankind”?
Answer: One of the most important things we can do in life is to advance our collective knowledge. Doing this helps create technologies that can cure illness, sustain life, and improve the quality of living. But this only works if we make reality the metric against which we compare other ideas. Accepting false beliefs means that we stop advancing, and start retreating, and this helps humankind not at all.

I’d like to take a moment and bear my testimony of doubt. Doubt is amazing! Doubt has helped me figure out what’s true and what’s false far better than faith can. Having faith just confirms what you believe, whether it’s right or not. It’s like a compass that always points in the way you’re going. What good is that? It might be okay if you’re trying to feel good about your beliefs, but if you’re trying to find out what’s true, it’s no use at all.

By contrast, doubt won’t hurt true claims (as long as you understand the kind of evidence required to establish a claim). However, it’s lethal to false ones.

Why’s it have to be snakes?

Jesus eventually jet-packed back up to heaven, but before he did, he left this instruction:

Mark 16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
16:17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
16:18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Poison aside, let’s talk about the snakes. This scripture has resulted in generations of pastors dying in snake-handling churches of the American South.

Snake-handling preacher Cody Coots got scared when the 6-foot long rattler bit his right hand early Monday.

Just three months ago, his father, Jamie Coots, died within minutes of being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service at his Middlesboro church.

The loss was still fresh for his family and friends, and Cody Coots, who took over for his father, had just been bitten by an even bigger rattler.

At first, “All I could think about — am I going to make it?” Coots said.

Jamie Coots, 42, was handling three rattlesnakes during a Saturday-night service at the church when one bit him on the right hand. Jamie Coots had survived more than half a dozen previous bites, but that night the venom quickly overwhelmed him.

His legs buckled in the bathroom at the church after he murmured “Sweet Jesus,” said Andrew Hamblin, a snake-handling minister from Tennessee who was with him.

People at the church rushed Coots home. He had made clear earlier that he did not want medical attention for a bite; his family sent an ambulance crew away as believers prayed over him.

A deputy coroner pronounced Coots dead about 90 minutes after he was bitten.

This raises all kinds of questions for me.

  • When someone dies from a snake bite in these churches, why don’t they take it as a sign of the victim’s lack of faith?
  • Why do they pray for the person to get better? Is that supposed to be some kind of Plan B, in case of lack of faith?
  • And where are all the poison-drinking churches? Did they used to exist, but poison worked more reliably than snakes?

Then there’s this quote:

If you don’t understand it, don’t knock it,” said Hamblin, who was close to Coots. “We adhere to the literal interpretation of the Gospel.”

I think I do understand it. They believe the Bible, and that is a terrible and costly mistake. However, unlike most believers, they take the claims of the Bible seriously. Well, one of them.

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